Category Archives: Nonfiction Reviews

Seven Final Novellas: Crumley, Morris, Rapp Black; Hunter, Johnson, Josipovici, Otsuka (#NovNov)

We’ll be wrapping up Novellas in November and giving final statistics on Tuesday. Today, I have mini reviews of another seven novellas I’ve been working on, some of them for the whole month. I’ll start with some short nonfiction and then move on to the fiction.

 

Nonfiction:

Barn Owl by Jim Crumley (2014)

[63 pages]

I reviewed Kingfisher and Otter, two other titles from Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, earlier in the month. Barn Owl follows the same pattern, traveling the Scottish islands in search of close encounters (with badgers and ospreys, too) but also stretching back to a childhood memory from 1950s Dundee, when there was an owl-occupied derelict farmstead a quarter-mile from his home. This is a lovely little full-circle narrative in that the book closes with “the barn owl, unlike all other night-flying owls, is the one that we can see in the dark … its inarguable beauty is layered with mystery, and …all of us have a place in our hearts and minds for mysterious beauty. I have known that to be an essential truth since I was about eight years old.” (Public library)

 

Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)

[148 pages]

A reread of a book that transformed my understanding of gender back in 2006. Morris (d. 2020) was a trans pioneer. Her concise memoir opens “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” Sitting under the family piano, little James knew it, but it took many years – a journalist’s career, including the scoop of the first summiting of Mount Everest in 1953; marriage and five children; and nearly two decades of hormone therapy – before a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972 physically confirmed it. I was struck this time by Morris’s feeling of having been a spy in all-male circles and taking advantage of that privilege while she could. She speculates that her travel books arose from “incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.” The focus is more on her unchanging soul than on her body, so this is not a sexual tell-all. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward true identity and there is only joy at new life rather than regret at time wasted in the ‘wrong’ one. (Public library)

 

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black (2021)

[145 pages]

This was my third memoir by the author; I reviewed The Still Point of the Turning World and Sanctuary earlier in the year. Like Sinéad Gleeson does in Constellations, Rapp Black turns to Frida Kahlo as a role model for “translating … pain into art.” Polio, a streetcar accident, 32 operations, failed pregnancies and an amputated leg – Kahlo endured much suffering. It was this last particular that especially drew Rapp Black (who has had a prosthetic leg since early childhood) to her. On a visit to Kahlo’s Mexico City home, she can hardly bear the intimacy of seeing Kahlo’s prostheses and corsets. They plunge her back into her own memories: of passing as normal despite a disability, having an eating disorder, losing her son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease, and starting over with a new marriage and baby. Rapp Black weaves this all together artfully as well as effectively, but for someone like me who is already conversant with her story, there wasn’t quite enough in the way of new material.

With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free e-copy for review.

  

Fiction:

These first two ended up having a major arc in common: desperate preservation of key family relationships against the backdrop of a believably falling-apart near-future world.

 

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017)

[127 pages]

A woman, her partner (R), and their baby son flee a flooded London in search of a place of safety, traveling by car and boat and camping with friends and fellow refugees. “How easily we have got used to it all, as though we knew what was coming all along,” she says. Her baby, Z, tethers her to the corporeal world. What actually happens? Well, on the one hand it’s very familiar if you’ve read any dystopian fiction; on the other hand it is vague because characters only designated by initials are hard to keep straight and the text is in one- or two-sentence or -paragraph chunks punctuated by asterisks (and dull observations): “Often, I am unsure whether something is a bird or a leaf. *** Z likes to eat butter in chunks. *** We are overrun by mice.” etc. It’s touching how Z’s early milestones structure the book, but for the most part the style meant this wasn’t my cup of tea. (Secondhand purchase)

 

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (2021)

[For novella only: 182 pages?]

Pick this up right away if you loved Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections. After “the unraveling,” Da’Naisha and fellow escapees from racial violence in Charlottesville – including her former and current boyfriends, the one Black and the other white; and her ailing grandmother, MaViolet – shelter at Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate. At first they stay by the visitor’s center, but as weeks pass and they fear a siege, they retreat to the mansion itself. Da’Naisha, our narrator, becomes the de facto leader of the motley crew, spearheading a trip out for supplies. She harbors two major secrets, one about her heritage and one about her future. Although this is a bit too similar to Parable of the Sower, against which I judge just about any dystopian fiction, the setting and timeliness can’t be beat. I read the U.S. ebook edition, which includes five short stories that also explore race issues and employ the first person plural and second person to good effect; “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” encapsulated my whole autumn mood. (Read via Edelweiss)

 

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (2018)

[101 pages]

After reviewing Josipovici’s 100 Days earlier in the month, I wanted to get a taste of his fiction. The protagonist is a translator who has lived in London, Paris and now rural Wales. He’s been married twice but, whatever his living situation, he’s always prized the solitude and routine he needs for his work. Passages from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo and Joachim du Bellay’s poetry – in the original language, sometimes but not always translated for us – drift through the novella, which also prioritizes the sort of repeated phrases that constitute a long-cohabitating couple’s domestic vocabulary. References to cemeteries and to du Bellay’s Regrets are hints of something hasn’t isn’t being revealed to us up front. I think I worked out what it was. Clever and interesting, but I’d like a bit more grounding detail. A favorite line: “for one’s life not living up to expectation there is no excuse, except for the paltry one that this is true of everybody’s life.” (University library)

 

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)

[145 pages]

Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese mail order brides in early 1900s San Francisco, was one of my first encounters with the first person plural, which I’ve come to love. It also serves as a prequel to this, her debut novel. In Berkeley, California in 1942, a Japanese man is arrested as a potential enemy combatant. His wife, son and daughter are given just a matter of days to pack their things and evacuate to an internment camp in the desert. Otsuka takes us along on the train journey and to the camp, where small moments rather than climactic ones reveal the children’s sadness and the injustice of what they’re missing out on. I most enjoyed the last section, when they all return to their home after over three years away and start to piece life back together. I’d already read a few novels featuring Japanese internment (e.g. The Japanese Lover and Snow Falling on Cedars) but, more than that, Otsuka’s writing is a tad too subtle for me. (Secondhand purchase)

 

In total, I read 29 novellas this November – a new record for me! I didn’t set out to read the equivalent of nearly one per day, but it happened to pan out like that. Some of my selections were very short indeed, at under 100 pages; multiple volumes of Garfield comics also helped. Three were 5-star reads: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy plus two rereads, Conundrum by Jan Morris (above) and our classics buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

 

I also had a couple of DNFs:

Gone by Michael Blencowe: (45 pages) I made a second attempt on this essay collection about extinct species this month. Maybe I’ve just read too much around the topic recently. (Review copy)

Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner: (50 pages) I loved the idea of a novella about a neurosurgeon, but mostly this concerns Nick’s fatness and his family members’ various dysfunctions. (New purchase)

#NonFicNov: Being the Expert on Covid Diaries

This year the Be/Ask/Become the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Veronica of The Thousand Book Project. (In previous years I’ve contributed lists of women’s religious memoirs (twice), accounts of postpartum depression, and books on “care”.)

I’ve been devouring nonfiction responses to COVID-19 for over a year now. Even memoirs that are not specifically structured as diaries take pains to give a sense of what life was like from day to day during the early months of the pandemic, including the fear of infection and the experience of lockdown. Covid is mentioned in lots of new releases these days, fiction or nonfiction, even if just via an introduction or epilogue, but I’ve focused on books where it’s a major element. At the end of the post I list others I’ve read on the theme, but first I feature four recent releases that I was sent for review.

 

Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 by Fred D’Aguiar

The plague for D’Aguiar was dual: not just Covid, but cancer. Specifically, stage 4 prostate cancer. A hospital was the last place he wanted to spend time during a pandemic, yet his treatment required frequent visits. Current events, including a curfew in his adopted home of Los Angeles and the protests following George Floyd’s murder, form a distant background to an allegorized medical struggle. D’Aguiar personifies his illness as a force intent on harming him; his hope is that he can be like Anansi and outwit the Brer Rabbit of cancer. He imagines dialogues between himself and his illness as they spar through a turbulent year.

Cancer needs a song: tambourine and cymbals and a choir, not to raise it from the dead but [to] lay it to rest finally.

Tracing the effects of his cancer on his wife and children as well as on his own body, he wonders if the treatment will disrupt his sense of his own masculinity. I thought the narrative would hit home given that I have a family member going through the same thing, but it struck me as a jumble, full of repetition and TMI moments. Expecting concision from a poet, I wanted the highlights reel instead of 323 rambling pages.

(Carcanet Press, August 26.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici

Beginning in March 2020, Josipovici challenged himself to write a diary entry and mini-essay each day for 100 days – which happened to correspond almost exactly to the length of the UK’s first lockdown. Approaching age 80, he felt the virus had offered “the unexpected gift of a bracket round life” that he “mustn’t fritter away.” He chose an alphabetical framework, stretching from Aachen to Zoos and covering everything from his upbringing in Egypt to his love of walking in the Sussex Downs. I had the feeling that I should have read some of his fiction first so that I could spot how his ideas and experiences had infiltrated it; I’m now rectifying this by reading his novella The Cemetery in Barnes, in which I recognize a late-life remarriage and London versus countryside settings.

Still, I appreciated Josipovici’s thoughts on literature and his own aims for his work (more so than the rehashing of Covid statistics and official briefings from Boris Johnson et al., almost unbearable to encounter again):

In my writing I have always eschewed visual descriptions, perhaps because I don’t have a strong visual memory myself, but actually it is because reading such descriptions in other people’s novels I am instantly bored and feel it is so much dead wood.

nearly all my books and stories try to force the reader (and, I suppose, as I wrote, to force me) to face the strange phenomenon that everything does indeed pass, and that one day, perhaps sooner than most people think, humanity will pass and, eventually, the universe, but that most of the time we live as though all was permanent, including ourselves. What rich soil for the artist!

Why have I always had such an aversion to first person narratives? I think precisely because of their dishonesty – they start from a falsehood and can never recover. The falsehood that ‘I’ can talk in such detail and so smoothly about what has ‘happened’ to ‘me’, or even, sometimes, what is actually happening as ‘I’ write.

You never know till you’ve plunged in just what it is you really want to write. When I started writing The Inventory I had no idea repetition would play such an important role in it. And so it has been all through, right up to The Cemetery in Barnes. If I was a poet I would no doubt use refrains – I love the way the same thing becomes different the second time round

To write a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything happens: a secret dream of mine ever since I began to write

I did sense some misogyny, though, as it’s generally female writers he singles out for criticism: Iris Murdoch is his prime example of the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, he mentions a “dreadful novel” he’s reading by Elizabeth Bowen, and he describes Jean Rhys and Dorothy Whipple as women “who, raised on a diet of the classic English novel, howled with anguish when life did not, for them, turn out as they felt it should.”

While this was enjoyable to flip through, it’s probably more for existing fans than for readers new to the author’s work, and the Covid connection isn’t integral to the writing experiment.

(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

A stanza from the below collection to link the first two books to this next one:

Have they found him yet, I wonder,

whoever it is strolling

about as a plague doctor, outlandish

beak and all?

 

The Crash Wake and Other Poems by Owen Lowery

Lowery was a tetraplegic poet – wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator – who also survived a serious car crash in February 2020 before his death in May 2021. It’s astonishing how much his body withstood, leaving his mind not just intact but capable of generating dozens of seemingly effortless poems. Most of the first half of this posthumous collection, his third overall, is taken up by a long, multipart poem entitled “The Crash Wake” (it’s composed of 104 12-line poems, to be precise), in which his complicated recovery gets bound up with wider anxiety about the pandemic: “It will take time and / more to find our way / back to who we were before the shimmer / and promise of our snapped day.”

As the seventh anniversary of his wedding to Jayne nears, Lowery reflects on how love has kept him going despite flashbacks to the accident and feeling written off by his doctors. In the second section of the book, the subjects vary from the arts (Paula Rego’s photographs, Stanley Spencer’s paintings, R.S. Thomas’s theology) to sport. There is also a lovely “Remembrance Day Sequence” imagining what various soldiers, including Edward Thomas and his own grandfather, lived through. The final piece is a prose horror story about a magpie. Like a magpie, I found many sparkly gems in this wide-ranging collection.

(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free e-copy for review.

 

Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter by Kate Walter

[135 pages, so I’m counting this one towards #NovNov, too]

For Walter, a freelance journalist and longtime Manhattan resident, coronavirus turned life upside down. Retired from college teaching and living in Westbeth Artists Housing, she’d relied on activities outside the home for socializing. To a single extrovert, lockdown offered no benefits; she spent holidays alone instead of with her large Irish Catholic family. Even one of the world’s great cities could be a site of boredom and isolation. Still, she gamely moved her hobbies onto Zoom as much as possible, and welcomed an escape to Jersey Shore.

In short essays, she proceeds month by month through the pandemic: what changed, what kept her sane, and what she was missing. Walter considers herself a “gay elder” and was particularly sad the Pride March didn’t go ahead in 2020. She also found herself ‘coming out again’, at age 71, when she was asked by her alma mater to encapsulate the 50 years since graduation in 100 words.

There’s a lot here to relate to – being glued to the news, anxiety over Trump’s possible re-election, looking forward to vaccination appointments – and the book is also revealing on the special challenges for older people and those who don’t live with family. However, I found the whole fairly repetitive (perhaps as a result of some pieces originally appearing in The Village Sun and then being tweaked and inserted here).

Before an appendix of four short pre-Covid essays, there’s a section of pandemic writing prompts: 12 sets of questions to use to think through the last year and a half and what it’s meant. E.g. “Did living through this extraordinary experience change your outlook on life?” If you’ve been meaning to leave a written record of this time for posterity, this list would be a great place to start.

(Heliotrope Books, November 16.) With thanks to the publicist for the free e-copy for review.

 


Other Covid-themed nonfiction I have read:

 

Medical accounts

+ I have a proof copy of Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki, coming out in January.

 

Nature writing

 

General responses

+ on my Kindle: Alone Together, an anthology of personal essays

+ on my TBR: What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch

 

If you read just one… Make it Intensive Care by Gavin Francis. (And, if you love nature books, follow that up with The Consolation of Nature.)

 

Can you see yourself reading any of these?

#NonFicNov Review Book Catch-Up: Cohen, Gilbert, Hodge, Piesse, Royle

I have a big backlog of review books piled beside my composition station (a corner of the lounge by the front window; an ancient PC inherited from my mother-in-law and not connected to the Internet; a wooden chair with leather seat that had been left behind in a previous rental house’s garage). Nonfiction November is the excuse I need to finally get around to writing about lots of them; at least one more catch-up will be coming later this month. My apologies to the publishers for the brief reviews.

Today I have a therapist’s take on classic literature, an optimist’s research on data use, a journalist’s response to her sister’s and father’s deaths, a professor’s search for the remnants of Charles Darwin at his family home, and a bibliophile’s tales of book-collecting exploits.

 

How to Live. What to Do.: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature by Josh Cohen

“Literature and psychoanalysis are both efforts to make sense of the world through stories, to discover the recurring problems and patterns and themes of life. Read and listen enough, and we soon come to notice how insistently the same struggles, anxieties and hopes repeat themselves down the ages and across the world.”

This is the premise for Cohen’s work life, and for this book. Moving through the human experience from youth to old age, he examines anonymous case studies and works of literature that speak to the sorts of situations encountered in that stage. For instance, he recommends Alice in Wonderland as a tonic for the feeling of being stuck – Lewis Carroll’s “let’s pretend” attitude can help someone return to the playfulness and openness of childhood. William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, set during the Spanish flu, takes on new significance for Cohen in the days of Covid as his appointments all move online; he also takes from it the importance of a mother for providing emotional security. A bibliotherapy theme would normally be catnip for me, but I often found the examples too obvious and the discussion too detailed (and thus involving spoilers). Not a patch on The Novel Cure.

(Ebury Press, February 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.

 

Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future by Sam Gilbert

Gilbert worked for Experian before going back to university to study politics; he is now a researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. At a time of much anxiety about “surveillance capitalism,” he seeks to provide reassurance. He explains that Facebook and the like, with their ad-based business models, use profile data and behavioural data to make inferences about you. This is not the same as “listening in,” he is careful to assert. Gilbert contrasts broad targeting and micro-targeting, and runs through trends in search data. He highlights instances where social media and data mining have been beneficial, such as in creating jobs, increasing knowledge, or aiding communication during democratic protests. I have to confess that a lot of this went over my head; I’d overestimated my interest in a full book on technology, having reviewed Born Digital earlier in the year.

(Welbeck, April 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

The Consequences of Love by Gavanndra Hodge (2020)

In 1989, Hodge’s younger sister Candy died on a family holiday in Tunisia when a rare virus brought on rapid organ failure. The rest of the family exhibited three very different responses to grief: her father retreated into existing addictions, her mother found religion, and she went numb and forgot her sister as much as possible – despite having a photographic memory in general. After her father’s death, Hodge finally found the courage to look back to her early life and the effect of Candy’s death. Hers was no ordinary upbringing; her father was a drug dealer who constantly disappointed her and from her teens on roped her into his substance abuse evenings. Often she was the closest thing to a sober and rational adult in the drug den their home had become. This is a very fluidly written bereavement memoir and a powerful exploration of memory and trauma. It was unfortunate that it felt that little bit too similar to a couple of other books I’ve read in recent years: When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and especially Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour.

(Paperback: Penguin, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.

 

The Ghost in the Garden: In Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden by Jude Piesse

When Piesse’s academic career took her back to her home county of Shropshire, she became fascinated by the Darwin family home in Shrewsbury, The Mount. A Victorian specialist, she threw herself into research on the family and particularly on the traces of the garden. Her thesis is that here, and on long walks through the surrounding countryside, Darwin developed the field methods and careful attention that would serve him well as the naturalist on board the Beagle. Piesse believes the habit of looking closely was shared by Darwin and his mother, Susannah. The author contrasts Susannah’s experience of childrearing with her own – she has two young daughters when she returns to Shropshire, and has to work out a balance between work and motherhood. I noted that Darwin lost his mother early – early parent loss is considered a predictor of high achievement (it links one-third of U.S. presidents, for instance).

I think what Piesse was attempting here was something like Rebecca Mead’s wonderful My Life in Middlemarch, but the links just aren’t strong enough: There aren’t that many remnants of the garden or the Darwins here (all the family artefacts are at Down House in Kent), and Piesse doesn’t even step foot into The Mount itself until page 217. I enjoyed her writing about her domestic life and her desire to create a green space, however small, for her daughters, but this doesn’t connect to the Darwin material. Despite my fondness for Victoriana, I was left asking myself what the point of this project was.

(Scribe, May 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle

From the 1970s to 1990s, Picador released over 1,000 paperback volumes with the same clean white-spined design. Royle has acquired most of them – no matter the author, genre or topic; no worries if he has duplicate copies. To build this impressive collection, he has spent years haunting charity shops and secondhand bookshops in between his teaching and writing commitments. He knows where you can get a good bargain, but he’s also willing to pay a little more for a rarer find. In this meandering memoir-of-sorts, he ponders the art of cover design, delights in ephemera and inscriptions found in his purchases (he groups these together as “inclusions”), investigates some previous owners and the provenance of his signed copies, interviews Picador staff and authors, and muses on the few most ubiquitous titles to be found in charity shops (Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, anything by Kathy Lette, and Last Orders by Graham Swift). And he does actually read some of what he buys, though of course not all, and finds some hidden gems.

In 2013 I read Royle’s First Novel, which also features Picador spines on its cover and a protagonist obsessed with them. I’d read enthusiastic reviews by fellow bibliophiles – Paul, Simon, Susan – so couldn’t resist requesting White Spines. While I enjoyed the conversational writing, ultimately I thought it quite an indulgent undertaking (especially the records of his dreams!), not dissimilar to a series of book haul posts. The details of shopping trips aren’t of much interest because he’s solely focused on his own quest, not on giving any insight into the wider offerings of a shop or town, e.g., Hay-on-Wye and Barter Books. But if you’re a fan of Shaun Bythell’s books you may well want to read this too. It’s also a window into the collector’s mindset: You know Royle is an extremist when you read that he once collected bread labels!

 (Salt Publishing, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.

 

Are you interested in reading one or more of these?

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (#NovNov Nonfiction Buddy Read)

For nonfiction week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.

Keller’s story is culturally familiar to us, perhaps from the William Gibson play The Miracle Worker, but I’d never read her own words. She was born in Alabama in 1880; her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army. An illness (presumed to be scarlet fever) left her blind and deaf at the age of 19 months, and she describes herself in those early years as mischievous and hot-tempered, always frustrated at her inability to express herself. The arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when Helen was six years old transformed her “silent, aimless, dayless life.”

I was fascinated by the glimpses into child development and education. Especially after she learned Braille, Keller loved books, but she believed she learned just as much from nature: “everything that could hum or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education.” She loved to sit in the family orchard and would hold insects or fossils and track plant and tadpole growth. Her first trip to the ocean (Chapter 10) was a revelation, and rowing and sailing became two of her chief hobbies, along with cycling and going to the theatre and museums.

Helen Keller with Annie Sullivan. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

At age 10 Keller relearned to speak – a more efficient way to communicate than her usual finger-spelling. She spent winters in Boston and eventually attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in preparation for starting college at Radcliffe. Her achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that smell and touch – senses we tend to overlook – were her primary ones. While she used a typewriter to produce schoolwork, a teacher spelling into her hand was still her main way to intake knowledge. Specialist textbooks for mathematics and multiple languages were generally not available in Braille. Digesting a lesson and completing homework thus took her much longer than it did her classmates, but still she felt “impelled … to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear.”

It was surprising to find, at the center of the book, a detailed account of a case of unwitting plagiarism (Chapter 14). Eleven-year-old Keller wrote a story called “The Frost King” for a beloved teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. He was so pleased that he printed it in one of their publications, but it soon came to his attention that the plot was very similar to “The Frost Fairies” in Birdie and His Friends by Margaret T. Canby. The tale must have been read to Keller long ago but become so deeply buried in the compost of a mind’s memories that she couldn’t recall its source. Some accused Keller and Sullivan of conspiring, and this mistrust more than the incident itself cast a shadow over her life for years to come. I was impressed by Keller discussing in depth something that it would surely have been more comfortable to bury. (I’ve sometimes had the passing thought that if I wrote a memoir I would structure it around my regrets or most embarrassing moments. Would that be penance or masochism?)

This short memoir was first serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Keller was only 23 and partway through her college degree at the time of publication. An initial chronological structure later turns more thematic and the topics are perhaps a little scattershot. I would attribute this, at least in part, to the method of composition: it would be difficult to make large-scale edits on a manuscript because everything she typed had to be spelled back to her for approval. Minor line edits would be easy enough, but not big structural changes. (I wonder if it’s similar with work that’s been dictated, like May Sarton’s later journals.)

Helen Keller in graduation cap and gown. (PPOC, Library of Congress. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Keller went on to write 12 more books. It would be interesting to follow up with another one to learn about her travels and philanthropic work. For insight into a different aspect of her life – bearing in mind that it’s fiction – I recommend Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan. In a couple of places Keller mentions Laura Bridgman, her less famous predecessor in the deaf–blind community; Kimberly Elkins’ 2014 What Is Visible is a stunning novel about Bridgman.

For such a concise book – running to just 75 pages in my Dover Thrift Editions paperback – this packs in so much. Indeed, I’ve found more to talk about in this review than I might have expected. The elements that most intrigued me were her early learning about abstractions like love and thought, and her enthusiastic rundown of her favorite books: “In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends.”

It’s possible some readers will find her writing style old-fashioned. It would be hard to forget you’re reading a work from nearly 120 years ago, given the sentimentality and religious metaphors. But the book moves briskly between anecdotes, with no filler. I remained absorbed in Keller’s story throughout, and so admired her determination to obtain a quality education. I know we’re not supposed to refer to disabled authors’ work as “inspirational,” so instead I’ll call it both humbling and invigorating – a reminder of my privilege and of the force of the human will. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)

 

Also reviewed by:

Cathy

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Short Nature Books for #NovNov by John Burnside, Jim Crumley and Aimee Nezhukumatathil

#NovNov meets #NonfictionNovember as nonfiction week of Novellas in November continues!

Tomorrow I’ll post my review of our buddy read for the week, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free from Project Gutenberg, here).

Today I review four nature books that celebrate marvelous but threatened creatures and ponder our place in relation to them.

 

Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction by John Burnside (2021)

[127 pages]

I’ve read a novel, a memoir, and several poetry collections by Burnside. He’s a multitalented author who’s written in many different genres. These four essays are rich with allusions and chewy with philosophical questions. “Aurochs” traces ancient bulls from the classical world onward and notes the impossibility of entering others’ subjectivity – true for other humans, so how much more so for extinct animals. Imagination and empathy are required. Burnside recounts an incident from when he went to visit his former partner’s family cattle farm in Gloucestershire and a poorly cow fell against his legs. Sad as he felt for her, he couldn’t help.

“Auks” tells the story of how we drove the Great Auk to extinction and likens it to whaling, two tragic cases of exploiting species for our own ends. The second and fourth essays stood out most to me. “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood” links literal species extinction with the loss of a sense of place. The notion of ‘property’ means that land becomes a space to be filled. Contrast this with places devoid of time and ownership, like Chernobyl. Although I appreciated the discussion of solastalgia and ecological grief, much of the material here felt a rehashing of my other reading, such as Footprints, Islands of Abandonment, Irreplaceable, Losing Eden and Notes from an Apocalypse. Some Covid references date this one in an unfortunate way, while the final essay, “Blossom Ruins,” has a good reason for mentioning Covid-19: Burnside was hospitalized for it in April 2020, his near-death experience a further spur to contemplate extinction and false hope.

The academic register and frequent long quotations from other thinkers may give other readers pause. Those less familiar with current environmental nonfiction will probably get more out of these essays than I did, though overall I found them worth engaging with.

With thanks to Little Toller Books for the proof copy for review.

 

Kingfisher and Otter by Jim Crumley (2018)

[59 pages each]

Part of Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, these are attractive wee hardbacks with covers by Carry Akroyd. (I’ve previously reviewed his The Company of Swans.) Each is based on the Scottish nature writer’s observations and serendipitous meetings, while an afterword gives additional information on the animal and its appearances in legend and literature.

An unexpected link between these two volumes was beavers, now thriving in Scotland after a recent reintroduction. Crumley marvels that, 400 years after their kind could last have interacted with beavers, otters have quickly gotten used to sharing rivers – to him this “suggests that race memory is indestructible.” Likewise, kingfishers gravitate to where beaver dams have created fish-filled ponds.

Kingfisher was, marginally, my preferred title from the pair. It sticks close to one spot, a particular “bend in the river” where the author watches faithfully and is occasionally rewarded by the sight of one or two kingfishers. As the book opens, he sees what at first looks like a small brown bird flying straight at him, until the head-on view becomes a profile that reveals a flash of electric blue. As the Gerard Manley Hopkins line has it (borrowed for the title of Alex Preston’s book on birdwatching), kingfishers “catch fire.” Lyrical writing and self-deprecating honesty about the necessity of waiting (perhaps in the soaking rain) for moments of magic made this a lovely read. “Colour is to kingfishers what slipperiness is to eels. … Vanishing and theory-shattering are what kingfishers do best.”

In Otter, Crumley ranges a bit more widely, prioritizing outlying Scottish islands from Shetland to Skye. It’s on Mull that he has the best views, seeing four otters in one day, though “no encounter is less than unforgettable.” He watches them playing with objects and tries to talk back to them by repeating their “Haah?” sound. “Everything I gather from familiar landscapes is more precious as a beholder, as a nature writer, because my own constant presence in that landscape is also a part of the pattern, and I reclaim the ancient right of my own species to be part of nature myself.”

From time to time we see a kingfisher flying down the canal. Some of our neighbors have also seen an otter swimming across from the end of the gardens, but despite our dusk vigils we haven’t been so lucky as to see one yet. I’ve only seen a wild otter once, at Ham Wall Nature Reserve in Somerset. One day, maybe there will be one right here in my backyard. (Public library)

 

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (2020)

[160 pages]

Nezhukumatathil, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, published four poetry collections before she made a splash with this beautifully illustrated collection of brief musings on species and the self – this was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize. Some of the 28 pieces spotlight an animal simply for how head-shakingly wondrous it is, like the dancing frog or the cassowary. More often, though, a creature or plant is a figurative vehicle for uncovering an aspect of her past. An example: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark … our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.”

The author’s Indian/Filipina family moved frequently for her mother’s medical jobs, and sometimes they were the only brown people around. Loneliness, the search for belonging and a compulsion to blend in are thus recurrent themes. As an adult, traveling for poetry residencies and sabbaticals exposes her to new species like whale sharks. Childhood trips back to India allowed her to spend time among peacocks, her favorite animal. In the American melting pot, her elementary school drawing of a peacock was considered unacceptable, but when she featured a bald eagle and flag instead she won a prize.

These pinpricks of the BIPOC experience struck me more powerfully than the actual nature writing, which can be shallow and twee. Talking to birds, praising the axolotl’s “smile,” directly addressing the reader – it’s all very nice, but somewhat uninformed; while she does admit to sadness and worry about what we are losing, her sunny outlook seemed out of touch at times. On the one hand, it’s great that she wanted to structure her fragments of memoir around amazing animals; on the other, I suspect that it cheapens a species to only consider it as a metaphor for the self (a vampire squid or potoo = her desire to camouflage herself in high school; flamingos = herself and other fragile long-legged college students; a bird of paradise = the guests dancing the Macarena at her wedding reception).

My favorite pieces were one on the corpse flower and the bookend duo on fireflies – she hits just the right note of nostalgia and warning: “I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each year. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say, I am still here, you are still here.

With thanks to Souvenir Press for the free copy for review.

 

Any nature books on your reading pile?

Nonfiction Week of #NovNov: Short Memoirs by Lucille Clifton, Alice Thomas Ellis and Deborah Levy

It’s nonfiction week of Novellas in November, which for me usually means short memoirs (today) and nature books (coming up on Wednesday). However, as my list of 10 nonfiction favorites from last year indicates, there’s no shortage of subjects covered in nonfiction works of under 200 pages; whether you’re interested in bereavement, food, hospitality, illness, mountaineering, nature, politics, poverty or social justice, you’ll find something that suits. This week is a great excuse to combine challenges with Nonfiction November, too.

We hope some of you will join in with our buddy read for the week, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). At a mere 85 pages, it’s a quick read. I’ve been enjoying learning about her family history and how meeting her teacher was the solution to her desperate need to communicate.

My first three short nonfiction reads of the month are all in my wheelhouse of women’s life writing, with each one taking on a slightly different fragmentary form.

 

Generations: A Memoir by Lucille Clifton (1976)

[87 pages]

After her father’s death, Clifton, an award-winning poet, felt compelled to delve into her African American family’s history. Echoing biblical genealogies, she recites her lineage in a rhythmic way and delivers family anecdotes that had passed into legend. First came Caroline, “Mammy Ca’line”: born in Africa in 1822 and brought to America as a child slave, she walked north from New Orleans to Virginia at age eight, became a midwife, and died free. Mammy Ca’line’s sayings lived on through Clifton’s father, her grandson: she “would tell us that we was Sayle people and we didn’t have to obey nobody. You a Sayle, she would say. You from Dahomey women.” Then came Caroline’s daughter, Lucy Sale, famously the first Black woman hanged in Virginia – for shooting her white lover. And so on until we get to Clifton herself, who grew up near Buffalo, New York and attended Howard University.

The chapter epigraphs from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” call into question how much of an individual’s identity is determined by their family circumstances. While I enjoyed the sideways look at slavery and appreciated the poetic take on oral history, I thought more detail and less repetition would have produced greater intimacy.

Reissued by NYRB Classics tomorrow, November 9th, with a new introduction by Tracy K. Smith. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

Home Life, Book Four by Alice Thomas Ellis (1989)

[169 pages]

For four years, Ellis wrote a weekly “Home Life” column for the Spectator. Her informal pieces remind me of Caitlin Moran’s 2000s writing for the Times – what today might form the kernel of a mums’ blog. In short, we have a harried mother of five trying to get writing done while maintaining a household – but given she has homes in London and Wales AND a housekeeper, and that her biggest problems include buying new carpet and being stuck in traffic, it’s hard to work up much sympathy. These days we’d say, Check your privilege.

The sardonic complaining rubbed me the wrong way, especially when the subject was not finding anything she wanted to read even though she’d just shipped four boxes of extraneous books off to her country house, or using noxious sprays to get rid of one harmless fly, or a buildup of rubbish bags because they’d been “tidying.” These essays feel of their time for the glib attitude and complacent consumerism. It’s rather a shame they served as my introduction to Ellis, but I think I’d still give her fiction a try. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)

 

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)

[187 pages]

In the space of a year, Levy separated from her husband and her mother fell ill with the cancer that would kill her. Living with her daughters in a less-than-desirable London flat, she longed for a room of her own. Her octogenarian neighbor, Celia, proffered her garden shed as a writing studio, and that plus an electric bike conferred the intellectual and physical freedom she needed to reinvent her life. That is the bare bones of this sparse volume, the middle one in an autobiographical trilogy, onto which Levy grafts the tissue of experience: conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her.

It’s hard to convey just what makes this brilliant. The scenes are everyday – set at her apartment complex, during her teaching work or on a train; the dialogue might be overheard. Yet each moment feels perfectly chosen to reveal her self, or the emotional truth of a situation, or the latent sexism of modern life. “All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world,” she writes, and it’s that quality of attention that sets this apart. I’ve had mixed success with Levy’s fiction (though I loved Hot Milk), but this was flawless from first line to last. I can only hope the rest of the memoir lives up to it. (New purchase)

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Any short nonfiction on your reading pile?

How Not to Be Afraid (of Everything): Gareth Higgins and Jane Wong

I’ve done a couple of other dual review posts this year (and I have another planned for Friday) where the books’ titles are so similar that I couldn’t resist discussing them together, even if the books themselves were extremely different. First I featured two books called Ex Libris; later I reviewed The Still Point with The Still Point of the Turning World. This time I have two 2021 releases: How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins’s self-help/theology book about resisting despair and living in faith; and Chinese American poet Jane Wong’s collection How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which draws on her family history. Together the titles seemed like a perfect antidote to R.I.P. (more coming up for that on Halloween!).

 

How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying by Gareth Higgins

I saw Higgins at the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in April, after which I promptly ordered all the speakers’ books; I’m still reading the other three. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the waning days of the Troubles and has been involved in peacemaking projects as well as in artistic expressions of progressive Christianity such as Wild Goose Festival, which he co-founded, and The Porch, an online magazine he edits. Fear was ingrained in him from his upbringing and reinforced by the bullying he experienced over his sexuality. He writes that it took him decades to learn that fear is a story, one often based on false assumptions about our powerlessness, and that we can change the story.

There’s a psychological/self-help bent to the book as Higgins invites readers, through the exercises at the end of each chapter, to ponder what myths about the true self and its possibilities are limiting their lives. The “seven” of the subtitle actually refers to seven main types of fear, each addressed in turn, such as “fear of having done something that can’t be fixed,” “fear of not having enough,” and “fear of a meaningless life.” There’s a good mix of memoir, theory, anecdotes and therapy speak (though it’s never jargon-y), and while the perspective is Christian, the content is not so religious as to turn off anyone – unless they’re dead set against faith. Many passages hit me right in the solar plexus and made me long to work out how my life can be bigger and part of telling a better story. Particularly recommended to fans of Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr. (New purchase)

 

How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong

Wong is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. The centerpiece of her second collection is “When You Died,” a 20-page epic about her grandparents’ experience during China’s “Great Leap Forward,” a 1950s–60s Maoist campaign of agricultural reform that led to severe famine. Her grandfather survived it and her mother was born at the tail end of it. Wong was born to immigrant parents in New Jersey and the atmosphere and imagery she uses to describe her living situation there reminded me of Qian Julie Wang’s in her memoir Beautiful Country.

Foodstuffs provide the figurative palette, with decay never far behind. I most enjoyed the multi-part poem “The Frontier” (“The frontier arranges itself / around me like a moat. / The frontier drops fruit / upon my head. I break open, / hot cantaloupe in winter. / I wobble around, spilling fruit / everywhere. All day, fruit flies / pay their respects.”) and “The Cactus,” about her spiky self-preservation instincts. This is the theme of the title poem as well:

How to not punch everyone in the face.

How to not protect everyone’s eyes from

my own punch. I have been practicing

my punch for years, loosening my limbs.

My jaw unhinged creates a felony I refuse

to go to court for.

There are many unusual metaphors and word choices, and a lot of the alliteration I love. Opening poem “Mad” is playfully set up like a Mad Libs game with all the key words as blanks. But at the same time, there are loads of prose poems – never my favourite thing to come across in a collection – and some long ones that I kept getting lost in.

Released by Alice James Books on the 12th. With thanks to Nectar Literary for the free e-copy for review.

Local Resistance: On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester

It’s mostly by accident that we came to live in Newbury: five years ago, when a previous landlord served us notice, we viewed a couple of rental houses in the area to compare with what was available in Reading and discovered that our money got us more that little bit further out from London. We’ve come to love this part of West Berkshire and the community we’ve found. It may not be flashy or particularly famous, but it has natural wonders worth celebrating and a rich history of rebellion that Nicola Chester plumbs in On Gallows Down. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, her book posits that the quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for.

So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. Nicola* has personal memories of the long-running women’s peace camps at Greenham Common, once a U.S. military base and cruise missile storage site – to go with the Atomic Weapons Establishment down the road at Aldermaston. As a teenager and young woman, she took part in symbolic protests against the Twyford Down and Newbury Bypass road-building projects, which went ahead and destroyed much sensitive habitat and many thousands of trees. Today, through local and national newspaper and magazine columns on wildlife, and through her winsome nagging of the managers of the Estate she lives on, she bears witness to damaging countryside management and points to a better way.

While there is a loose chronological through line, the book is principally arranged by theme, with experiences linked back to historical or literary precedents. An account of John Clare and the history of enclosure undergirds her feeling of the precarity of rural working-class life: as an Estate tenant, she knows she doesn’t own anything, has no real say in how things are done, and couldn’t afford to move elsewhere. Nicola is a school librarian and has always turned to books and writing to understand the world. I particularly loved Chapter 6, about how she grounds herself via the literature of this area: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, and especially Richard Adams’s Watership Down.

Whatever life throws at her – her husband being called up to fight in Iraq, struggling to make ends meet with small children, a miscarriage, her father’s unexpected death – nature is her solace. She describes places and creatures with a rare intimacy borne out of deep knowledge. To research a book on otters for the RSPB, she seeks out every bridge over every stream. She goes out “lamping” with the local gamekeeper after dark and garners priceless nighttime sightings. Passing on her passion to her children, she gets them excited about badger watching, fossil collecting, and curating shelves of natural history treasures like skulls and feathers. She also serves as a voluntary wildlife advocate on her Estate. For every victory, like the re-establishment of the red kite population in Berkshire and regained public access to Greenham Common, there are multiple setbacks, but she continues to be a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.

We are writing for our very lives and for those wild lives we share this one, lonely planet with. Writing was also a way to channel the wildness; to investigate and interpret it, to give it a voice and defend it. But it was also a connection between home and action; a plank bridge between a domestic and wild sense. A way both to home and resist.

You know that moment when you’re reading a book and spot a place you’ve been or a landmark you know well, and give a little cheer? Well, every site in this book was familiar to me from our daily lives and countryside wanderings – what a treat! As I was reading, I kept thinking how lucky we are to have such an accomplished nature writer to commemorate the uniqueness of this area. Even though I was born thousands of miles away and have moved more than a dozen times since I settled in England in 2007, I feel the same sense of belonging that Nicola attests to. She explicitly addresses this question of where we ‘come from’ versus where we fit in, and concludes that nature is always the key. There is no exclusion here. “Anyone could make a place their home by engaging with its nature.”


*I normally refer to the author by surname in a book review, but I’m friendly with Nicola from Twitter and have met her several times (and she’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet), so somehow can’t bring myself to be that detached!

 

On Gallows Down was released by Chelsea Green Publishing on October 7th. My thanks to the author and publisher for arranging a proof copy for review.

 

My husband and I attended the book launch event for On Gallows Down in Hungerford on Saturday evening. Nicola was introduced by Hungerford Bookshop owner Emma Milne-White and interviewed by Claire Fuller, whose Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional version of the village where Nicola lives.

Nicola Chester and Claire Fuller. Photo by Chris Foster.

Nicola dated the book’s genesis to the moment when, 25 years ago, she queued up to talk to a TV news reporter about Newbury Bypass and froze. She went home and cried, and realized she’d have to write her feelings down instead. Words generally come to her at the time of a sighting, as she thinks about how she would tell someone how amazing it was.

Her memories are tied up with seasons and language, especially poetry, she said, and she has recently tried her hand at poetry herself. Asked about her favourite season, she chose two, the in-between seasons – spring for its abundance and autumn for its nostalgia and distinctive smells like tar spot fungus on sycamore leaves and ivy flowers.

 

A bonus related read:

Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths (2007)

This limited edition 57-page pamphlet from Glastonbury-based Wooden Books caught my eye from the library’s backroom rolling stacks. Griffiths wrote her impish story of Newbury Bypass resistance in response to her time among the protesters’ encampments and treehouses. Young Roddy finds a purpose for his rebellious attitude wider than his “McTypical McSuburb” by joining other oddballs in solidarity against aggressive policemen and detectives.

There are echoes of Ali Smith in the wordplay and rendering of accents.

“When I think of the road, I think of more and more monoculture of more and more suburbia. What I do, I do in defiance of the Louis Queasy Chintzy, the sickly stale air of suburban car culture. I want the fresh air of nature, the lifefull wind of the French revolution.”

In a nice spot of Book Serendipity, both this and On Gallows Down recount the moment when nature ‘fought back’ as a tree fell on a police cherry-picker. Plus Roddy is kin to the tree-sitting protesters in The Overstory by Richard Powers as well as another big novel I’m reading now, Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.

Three on a Theme: Queer Family-Making

Several 2021 memoirs have given me a deeper understanding of the special challenges involved when queer couples decide they want to have children.

“It’s a fundamentally queer principle to build a family out of the pieces you have”

~Jennifer Berney

“That’s the thing[:] there are no accidental children born to homosexuals – these babies are always planned for, and always wanted.”

~Michael Johnson-Ellis

 

The Other Mothers by Jennifer Berney

Berney remembers hearing the term “test-tube baby” for the first time in a fifth-grade sex ed class taught by a lesbian teacher at her Quaker school. By that time she already had an inkling of her sexuality, so suspected that she might one day require fertility help herself.

By the time she met her partner, Kellie, she knew she wanted to be a mother; Kellie was unsure. Once they were finally on the same page, it wasn’t an easy road to motherhood. They purchased donated sperm through a fertility clinic and tried IUI, but multiple expensive attempts failed. Signs of endometriosis had doctors ready to perform invasive surgery, but in the meantime the couple had met a friend of a friend (Daniel, whose partner was Rebecca) who was prepared to be their donor. Their at-home inseminations resulted in a pregnancy – after two years of trying to conceive – and, ultimately, in their son. Three years later, they did the whole thing all over again. Rebecca had sons at roughly the same time, too, giving their boys the equivalent of same-age cousins – a lovely, unconventional extended family.

It surprised me that the infertility business seemed entirely set up for heterosexual couples – so much so that a doctor diagnosed the problem, completely seriously, in Berney’s chart as “Male Factor Infertility.” This was in Washington state in c. 2008, before the countrywide legalization of gay marriage, so it’s possible the situation would be different now, or that the couple would have had a different experience had they been based somewhere like San Francisco where there is a wide support network and many gay-friendly resources.

Berney finds the joy and absurdity in their journey as well as the many setbacks. I warmed to the book as it went along: early on, it dragged a bit as she surveyed her younger years and traced the history of IVF and alternatives like international adoption. As the storyline drew closer to the present day, there was more detail and tenderness and I was more engaged. I’d read more from this author. (Published by Sourcebooks. Read via NetGalley)

 

small: on motherhoods by Claire Lynch

A line from Berney’s memoir makes a good transition into this one: “I felt a sense of dread: if I turned out to be gay I believed my life would become unbearably small.” The word “small” is a sort of totem here, a reminder of the microscopic processes and everyday miracles that go into making babies, as well as of the vulnerability of newborns – and of hope.

Lynch and her partner Beth’s experience in England was reminiscent of Berney’s in many ways, but with a key difference: through IVF, Lynch’s eggs were added to donor sperm to make the embryos implanted in Beth’s uterus. Mummy would have the genetic link, Mama the physical tie of carrying and birthing. It took more than three years of infertility treatment before they conceived their twin girls, born premature; they were followed by another daughter, creating a crazy but delightful female quintet. The account of the time when their daughters were in incubators reminded me of Francesca Segal’s Mother Ship.

There are two intriguing structural choices that make small stand out. The first you’d notice from opening the book at random, or to page 1. It is written in a hybrid form, the phrases and sentences laid out more like poetry. Although there are some traditional expository paragraphs, more often the words are in stanzas or indented. Here’s an example of what this looks like on the page. It also happens to be from one of the most ironically funny parts of the book, when Lynch is grouped in with the dads at an antenatal class:

It’s a fast-flowing, artful style that may remind readers of Bernardine Evaristo’s work (and indeed, Evaristo gives one of the puffs). The second interesting decision was to make the book turn on a revelation: at the exact halfway mark we learn that, initially, the couple intended to have opposite roles: Lynch tried to get pregnant with Beth’s baby, but miscarried. Making this the pivot point of the memoir emphasizes the struggle and grief of this experience, even though we know that it had a happy ending.

With thanks to Brazen Books for the free copy for review.

 

How We Do Family by Trystan Reese

We mostly have Trystan Reese to thank for the existence of a pregnant man emoji. A community organizer who works on anti-racist and LGBTQ justice campaigns, Reese is a trans man married to a man named Biff. They expanded their family in two unexpected ways: first by adopting Biff’s niece and nephew when his sister’s situation of poverty and drug abuse meant she couldn’t take care of them, and then by getting pregnant in the natural (is that even the appropriate word?) way.

All along, Reese sought to be transparent about the journey, with a crowdfunding project and podcast ahead of the adoption, and media coverage of the pregnancy. This opened the family up to a lot of online hatred. I found myself most interested in the account of the pregnancy itself, and how it might have healed or exacerbated a sense of bodily trauma. Reese was careful to have only in-the-know and affirming people in the delivery room so there would be no surprises for anyone. His doctor was such an ally that he offered to create a more gender-affirming C-section scar (vertical rather than horizontal) if it came to it. How to maintain a sense of male identity while giving birth? Well, Reese told Biff not to look at his crotch during the delivery, and decided not to breastfeed.

I realized when reading this and Detransition, Baby that my view of trans people is mostly post-op because of the only trans person I know personally, but a lot of people choose never to get surgical confirmation of gender (or maybe surgery is more common among trans women?). We’ve got to get past the obsession with genitals. As Reese writes, “we are just loving humans, like every human throughout all of time, who have brought a new life into this world. Nothing more than that, and nothing less. Just humans.”

This is a very fluid, quick read that recreates scenes and conversations with aplomb, and there are self-help sections after most chapters about how to be flexible and have productive dialogue within a family and with strangers. If literary prose and academic-level engagement with the issues are what you’re after, you’d want to head to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts instead, but I also appreciated Reese’s unpretentious firsthand view.

And here’s further evidence of my own bias: the whole time I was reading, I felt sure that Reese must be the figure on the right with reddish hair, since that looked like a person who could once have been a woman. But when I finished reading I looked up photos; there are many online of Reese during pregnancy. And NOPE, he is the bearded, black-haired one! That’ll teach me to make assumptions. (Published by The Experiment. Read via NetGalley)

 

Plus a bonus essay from the Music.Football.Fatherhood anthology, DAD:

“A Journey to Gay Fatherhood: Surrogacy – The Unimaginable, Manageable” by Michael Johnson-Ellis

The author and his husband Wes had both previously been married to women before they came out. Wes already had a daughter, so they decided Johnson-Ellis would be the genetic father the first time. They then had different egg donors for their two children, but used the same surrogate for both pregnancies. I was astounded at the costs involved: £32,000 just to bring their daughter into being. And it’s striking both how underground the surrogacy process is (in the UK it’s illegal to advertise for a surrogate) and how exclusionary systems are – the couple had to fight to be in the room when their surrogate gave birth, and had to go to court to be named the legal guardians when their daughter was six weeks old. Since then, they’ve given testimony at the Houses of Parliament and become advocates for UK surrogacy.

(I have a high school acquaintance who has gone down this route with his husband – they’re about to meet their daughter and already have a two-year-old son – so I was curious to know more about it, even though their process in the USA might be subtly different.)

 

On the subject of queer family-making, I have also read: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson () and The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg ().

 

If you read just one … Claire Lynch’s small was the one I enjoyed most as a literary product, but if you want to learn more about the options and process you might opt for Jennifer Berney’s The Other Mothers; if you’re particularly keen to explore trans issues and LGTBQ activism, head to Trystan Reese’s How We Do Family.

 

Have you read anything on this topic?

September Poetry & Nonfiction: Antrobus, Benning, Carey; Bowler, Lister

September is a major month for new releases. I’ve already reviewed two fiction titles that came out this month: Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty and Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’m still working through the 500+ pages of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, and hope to report back on it before too long.

Today I have poetry volumes reckoning with race and disability and with modern farming on the Canadian prairie, as well as a centuries-spanning anthology; and, in nonfiction, memoirs of living with advanced cancer and adjusting to widowhood in one’s thirties.

 

All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus

Antrobus, a British-Jamaican poet, won the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Ted Hughes Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for his first collection, The Perseverance. I reviewed it for the Folio Prize blog tour in 2019 and was in attendance at the Young Writer ceremony when he won. Its themes carry over into this second full-length work: again, he reflects on biracial identity, deafness, family divisions, and the loss of his father. Specifically, he is compelled to dive into the history of his English mother’s ancient surname, Antrobus: associated with baronets, owners of Stonehenge, painters – and slavers.

Tell me if I’m closer

to the white painter

with my name than I am

 

to the black preacher,

his hands wide to the sky,

the mahogany rot

 

of heaven. Sorry,

but you know by now

that I can’t mention trees

 

without every shade

of my family

appearing and disappearing. (from “Plantation Paint”)

Other poems explore police and prison violence against Black and deaf people, and arise from his experiences teaching poetry to students and inmates. Captions in square brackets are peppered throughout, inspired by the work of Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. These serve as counterparts to the sign language illustrations in The Perseverance. There are also unsentimental love poems written for his wife, Tabitha. This didn’t captivate me in the same way as his first book, but I always enjoy experiencing the work of contemporary poets and would recommend this to readers of Jason Allen-Paisant, Caleb Femi and Kei Miller.

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

Field Requiem by Sheri Benning

Benning employs religious language to give structure to her solemn meditations on the degraded landscape of Saskatchewan, a place where the old ways have been replaced by impersonal, industrial-scale farming. Poems are titled “Plainsong,” “Minor Doxology,” “Intercession” and “Compline.” You can hear the rhythms of psalms and the echoes of the requiem mass in her verse.

There’s a prophetic tone behind poems about animal casualties due to pesticides, with “We were warned” used as a refrain in “1 Zephaniah”:

Everything swept away.

Everything consumed. Sky bled dry

of midges. Locusts, bees, neurons frayed.

 

Antiseptic silence of canola

fields at dusk, muted

grasshopper thrum.

Alliteration pops out from the lists of crops and the prairie species their cultivation has pushed to the edge of extinction. This is deeply place based writing, with the headings of multipart poems giving coordinates. Elegies tell the stories behind the names in a local graveyard, including Ukrainian immigrants. Many of these are tragic tales of failure: “neck in the noose of profit margins and farm credit” (from “NE 10 36 22 W2ND”). Benning and her sister, Heather, who took the Ansel Adams-like black-and-white photographs that illustrate the book, toured derelict farms and abandoned homes:

pull yourself through the kitchen window,

glass shot out decades ago. Breathe the charnel reek,

the cracked-open casket of the nation’s turn-of-the-century bullshit-

promises, adipose gleam of barley and wheat. (from “SW 26 36 22 W2ND”)

I attended the online launch event last night and enjoyed hearing Benning read from the book and converse with Karen Solie about its origins. Benning’s parents were farmers up until the late 1990s, then returned to diversified farming in the late 2000s. Solie aptly referred to the book as “incantatory.” With its ecological conscience, personal engagement and liturgical sound, this is just my kind of poetry. If you’ve been thinking about the issues with land use and food production raised by the likes of Wendell Berry and James Rebanks, you shouldn’t miss it.

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

 

100 Poets: A Little Anthology by John Carey

John Carey is among the UK’s most respected literary critics. I’ve read several of his books over the years, including his outstanding memoir, The Unexpected Professor. This anthology, a sort of follow-up to his A Little History of Poetry (2020), chooses 100 top poets and then opines on what he considers their best work. The book is organized chronologically, proceeding from Homer to Maya Angelou. Sticking mostly to English-language and American, British or Commonwealth poets (with just a handful of Continental selections, like Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke, in translation), Carey delivers mini-essays with biographical information and historical background.

There is some inconsistency in terms of the amount of context and interpretation given, however. For some poets, there may be just a line or two of text, followed by a reprinted poem (Richard Wilbur, Les Murray); for others, there are paragraphs’ worth of explanations, interspersed with excerpts (Andrew Marvell, Thomas Gray). Some choices are obvious; others are deliberately obscure (e.g., eschewing Robert Frost’s and Philip Larkin’s better-known poems in favour of “Out, Out” and “The Explosion”). The diversity is fairly low, and you can see Carey’s age in some of his introductions: “Edward Lear was gay, and felt a little sad when friends got married”; “Alfred Edward Housman was gay, and he thought it unjust that he should be made to feel guilty about something that was part of his nature.” There’s way too much First and Second World War poetry here. And can a poet really be one of the 100 greatest ever when I’ve never heard of them? (May Wedderburn Cannan, anyone?)

Unsurprisingly, I was most engaged with the pieces on Victorian and Modernist poets since those are the periods I studied at university and still love the most, but there were a few individual poems I was glad to discover, such as Ben Jonson’s “On My First Sonne,” written upon his death from bubonic plague, and Edward Thomas’s “Old Man,” as well as many I was happy to encounter again. This would be a good introduction for literature students as well as laypeople wanting to brush up on their poetry.

With thanks to Yale University Press, London for the proof copy for review.

 

Nonfiction

 

No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler

(Below is my Shelf Awareness review, reprinted with permission.)

In her bittersweet second memoir, a religion professor finds the joys and ironies in a life overshadowed by advanced cancer.

When Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer at age 35, her chances of surviving two years were just 14%. In No Cure for Being Human, her wry, touching follow-up to her 2018 memoir Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) and its associated podcast, she continues to combat unhelpful religious/self-help mantras as she ponders what to do with the extra time medical breakthroughs have given her.

After multiple surgeries, a promising immunotherapy drug trial gave Bowler hope that she would live to see her 40th birthday and her young son starting kindergarten. Working on her bucket list, she found that small moments outshined large events: on a trip to the Grand Canyon, what stood out was a chapel in the ponderosa pinewoods where she added a prayer to those plastering the walls. In the Church calendar, “Ordinary Time” is where most of life plays out, so she encourages readers to live in an “eternal present.”

The chapters function like stand-alone essays, some titled after particular truisms (like “You Only Live Once”). The book’s bittersweet tone finds the humor as well as the tragedy in a cancer diagnosis. Witty recreated dialogue and poignant scenes show the type-A author learning to let go: “I am probably replaceable,” she acknowledges, but here in the shadow of death “the mundane has begun to sparkle.” These dispatches from the “lumpy middle” of life and faith are especially recommended to fans of Anne Lamott.


(If you’ve read her previous book, Everything Happens for a Reason, you may find, as I did, that there is a little too much repetition about her diagnosis and early treatment. The essays could also probably be structured more successfully. But it’s still well worth reading.)

With thanks to Rider Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Elements: A Widowhood by Kat Lister

This story hit all too close to home to me: like Kat Lister, my sister was widowed in her thirties, her husband having endured gruelling years of treatment for brain cancer that caused seizures and memory loss. Lister’s husband, Pat Long, was a fellow journalist. Cancer was with them for the entire span of their short marriage, and infertility treatment didn’t succeed in giving them the children they longed for.

Although it moves back and forth in time, the memoir skims over the happy before and the torturous middle, mostly shining a light on the years after Pat died in 2018. Lister probes her emotional state and the ways in which she met or defied people’s expectations of a young widow. Even when mired in grief, she was able to pass as normal: to go to work, to attend social functions wearing leopard print. She writes of a return trip to Mexico, where she’d gone with Pat, and in some detail of the sexual reawakening she experienced after his death. But everyday demands could threaten to sink her even when life-or-death moments hadn’t.

Writing helped her process her feelings, and the Wellcome Library was a refuge where she met her predecessors in bereavement literature. While some of the literary points of reference are familiar (Joan Didion, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, C.S. Lewis), others are unexpected, and the overall Fire­–Water–Earth–Air structure creates thematic unity in a similar way as the constellations do in Molly Wizenberg’s The Fixed Stars. Giving shape and dignity to grief, this is a lovely, comforting read.

A favourite passage:

When I talk of my husband, I often speak of disparate worlds. Mine is inside time, his is supertemporal. I continue to age whilst my husband stays fixed in a past I am drifting further away from with every sentence that I type. And yet, like those luminous balls of plasma in the sky, we are still connected together, for all time is cyclical. I hold the elements within me.

With thanks to Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?