Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
I’ve had mixed feelings about the online nature of life recently. On Sunday I avoided the Internet altogether so as not to be bombarded with (UK) Mother’s Day memes and notifications. Yesterday our home broadband dropped out completely, such that I couldn’t do any freelance work or post about the Folio Prize poetry shortlist as I’d meant to do on World Poetry Day. Too much connectivity or not enough. Today – just as a line engineer is due to arrive; that usual irony – all is normal and I’m back in the swing of working and blogging.
Using my husband’s phone as a hotspot, I was at least still able to watch yesterday evening’s free 5×15 event with the Rathbones Folio Prize, featuring Amy Bloom, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sheila Heti, Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Strout and hosted by interviewer Alex Clark. Over the next couple of days I’ll review Heti and Strout’s novels and the entire poetry shortlist, but for now I’ll weave some of the insight I gained last night into a review of Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (2022), the new-to-me book from the nonfiction shortlist that I was most interested in reading.
Although the subtitle is “A Memoir,” this experimental text does such novel things with the genre that it bears little resemblance to most memoirs I’ve read. For that reason alone, I can see why the judges shortlisted it. During the 5×15 event, Jefferson described her book as “an assemblage of ideas, memories, sensations, feelings, and other people’s words—not just my own.” It’s also a reckoning with culture – particularly jazz music and dance by African Americans, but also particular examples from the white literary canon.
Jefferson was a long-time theatre and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for her criticism in 1995; she now teaches writing at Columbia University. She has previously published another memoir, Negroland, and a biography of Michael Jackson. Here she blends her chosen genres of life writing and cultural criticism. Her aim, she said, was to craft “criticism with the intensities and intimacies of memoir” and “memoir with the range of criticism.”
Jefferson mentioned that the deaths of her mother and older sister (who was like her muse) left her an orphan and, strangely, “cleared the stage for me to step out and speak my lines.” Indeed, the book is loosely structured as a play, opening with the metaphor of an empty stage and ending with the direction “BLACKOUT.” In between there are many imagined dialogues with herself or between historical figures, such as the bizarre pairing of George Eliot and W.E.B. Du Bois. Some quotations and definitions appear in italics or bold face. Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker play major roles, but there’s also a surprisingly long section devoted to Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which Jefferson loves and has often taught, yet finds problematic for how it enshrines whiteness (“Confederate Southern mythmaking”).
I don’t feel that I got much of a sense of the sweep of Jefferson’s life from the book, just a vague impression of an upper-middle-class Black upbringing. (Perhaps Negroland is a more straightforward memoir?) To be sure, she was keen to avoid “slogging through chronology,” as she explained, instead welcoming onto the page “a repertory company of myself as I encounter all the materials of my life—the factual and historical as well as the creative.” And so I do feel I have met her as an industrious mind, drawing connections between disparate aspects of experience and cultural consumption. This is a model of how a critic (like myself) might incorporate a body of work into a record of life. Yet when so many of her touchstones do not overlap with mine, I could only observe and admire from afar, not be truly drawn in.
Some lines I loved:
“Remember: Memoir is your present negotiating with versions of your past for a future you’re willing to show up in.”
“Older women’s tales— ‘Une femme d’un certain âge’ tales—are hard to pull off. They risk being arch.”
(of Ella Fitzgerald) “You turned the maw of black female labor into the wonderland of black female art.”
“Women’s anger needs to be honored—celebrated and protected—the way virginity used to be! … I’ve spent my adult years working on an assemblage of black feminist anger modes.”
With thanks to FMcM Associates and Granta Books for the free copy for review.
I was very impressed with both Amy Bloom and Margo Jefferson ‘in person’ (on Zoom): elegant, intellectual, well-spoken; authors at the top of their game. I reviewed Amy Bloom’s affecting memoir In Love, about her husband Brian’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and the decision to end his life at Dignitas in Zurich, last year. She told Alex Clark that the book started as a caregiver’s notes, but Brian made it clear that he wanted her to write about the experience, to inform people about end-of-life options. She believes that ultimately the memoir is about what it means to be a person and the decisions that make up a life. Her children joke that her only four subjects – in fiction or otherwise – are love, sex, family and death. Well, what else is there, really?
I know only the barest facts about the other three books on the Folio nonfiction shortlist but none of them screams ‘must read’ to me:
- The Passengers by Will Ashon – oral narratives from contemporary Britain
- The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland – biography of an Auschwitz whistle-blower
- The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey – a rapper’s book about inequality and antisocial behaviour
Have you read, or would you read, anything from the Folio nonfiction shortlist?
Tomorrow: Five poetry shortlist reviews
Friday: Two fiction shortlist reviews; my predictions for the category winners and overall prize winner
Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island: Reread and Stage Production
Bill Bryson, an American author of humorous travel and popular history or science books, is considered a national treasure in his adopted Great Britain. He is a particular favourite of my husband and in-laws, who got me into his work back in the early to mid-2000s. As I, too, was falling in love with the country, I found much to relate to in his travel-based memoirs of expatriate life and temporary returns to the USA. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things clearly.
When we heard that Notes from a Small Island (1995), his account of a valedictory tour around Britain before returning to live in the States for the first time in 20 years, had been adapted into a play by Tim Whitnall and would be performed at our local theatre, the Watermill, we thought, huh, it never would have occurred to us to put this particular book on stage. Would it work? we wondered. The answer is yes and no, but it was entertaining and we were glad that we went. We presented tickets as my in-laws’ Christmas present and accompanied them to a mid-February matinee before supper at ours.
A few members of my book club decided to see the show later in the run and suggested we read – or reread, as was the case for several of us – the book in March. I started my reread before attending the play and had gotten through the first 50 pages, which is mostly about his first visit to England in 1973 (including a stay in a Dover boarding-house presided over by the infamously officious “Mrs Smegma”). This was ideal as the first bit contains the funniest stuff and, with the addition of some autobiographical material from later in the book plus his 2006 memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, made up the entirety of the first act.
Bryson traveled almost exclusively by public transport, so the set had the brick and steel walls of a generic terminal, and a bus shelter and benches were brought into service as the furnishing for most scenes. The problem with frontloading the play with hilarious scenes is that the second act, like the book itself on this reread, became rather a slog of random stops, acerbic observations, finding somewhere to stay and something to eat (often curry), and then doing it all over again.
Mark Hadfield, in the starring role, had the unenviable role of carrying the action and remembering great swathes of text lifted directly from the book. That’s all well and good as a strategy for giving a flavour of the writing style, but the language needed to be simplified; the poor man couldn’t cope and kept fluffing his lines. There were attempts to ease the burden: sections were read out by other characters in the form of announcements, letters or postcards; some reflections were played as if from Bryson’s Dictaphone. It was best, though, when there were scenes rather than monologues against a projected map, because there was an excellent ensemble cast of six who took on the various bit parts and these were often key occasions for humour: hotel-keepers, train-spotters, unintelligible accents in a Glasgow pub.
The trajectory was vaguely southeast to northwest – as far as John O’Groats, then back home to the Yorkshire Dales – but the actual route was erratic, based on whimsy as much as the availability of trains and buses. Bryson sings the praises of places like Salisbury and Durham and the pinnacles of coastal walks, and slates others, including some cities, seaside resorts and tourist traps. Places of personal significance make it onto his itinerary, such as the former mental asylum at Virginia Water, Surrey where he worked and met his wife in the 1970s. (My husband and I lived across the street from it for a year and a half.) He’s grumpy about having to pay admission fees that in today’s money sound minimal – £2.80 for Stonehenge!
The main interest for me in both book and play was the layers of recent history: the nostalgia for the old-fashioned country he discovered at a pivotal time in his own young life in the 1970s; the disappointments but still overall optimism of the 1990s; and the hindsight the reader or viewer brings to the material today. At a time when workers of every type seem to be on strike, it was poignant to read about the protests against Margaret Thatcher and the protracted printers’ strike of the 1980s.
The central message of the book, that Britain has an amazing heritage that it doesn’t adequately appreciate and is rapidly losing to homogenization, still holds. Yet I’m not sure the points about the at-heart goodness and politeness of the happy-with-their-lot British remain true. Is it just me or have general entitlement, frustration, rage and nastiness taken over? Not as notable as in the USA, but social divisions and the polarization of opinions are getting worse here, too. One can’t help but wonder what the picture would have been post-Brexit as well. Bryson wrote a sort-of sequel in 2015, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which the sarcasm and curmudgeonly persona override the warmth and affection of the earlier book.
Indeed, my book club noted that a lot of the jokes were things he couldn’t get away with saying today, and the theatre issued a content warning: “This production includes the use of very strong language, language reflective of historical attitudes around Mental Health, reference to drug use, sexual references, mention of suicide, flashing lights, pyrotechnics, loud sound effect explosions, and haze. This production is most suitable for those aged 12+.”
So, yes, an amusing journey, but a bittersweet one to revisit, and an odd choice for the stage.
A favourite line I’ll leave you with: “To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”
Original rating (c. 2004):
My rating now:
Have you read anything by Bill Bryson? Are you a fan?
All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett & I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m catching up with reviews of two February releases that I spent the whole of last month submerged in. These are early entries on my Best of 2023 list: A lovely memoir about grief and gardening, caring for an ill child and a dying parent; and a riveting true crime-inspired novel, set on a boarding school campus, that rages at injustice and violence against women.
All My Wild Mothers: Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett
Early in February, I attended the online book launch via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere. With conversation, readings and song, it was the ideal introduction to the themes of this debut memoir by a poet. The book is composed of dozens of brief autobiographical, present-tense essays, each titled after a wildflower with traditional healing properties. The chapters are headed by a black-and-white woodcut of each plant (by Bennett’s husband, Adam Clarke) and a précis of its medicinal uses, as well as where it is found. Again and again, these descriptions site the flora on edgelands or “disturbed ground” – the perfect metaphorical tie-in to Bennett’s tumultuous life and the comfort that creating an apothecary garden brought.
Bennett is the youngest of six children. When she was expecting her son – much longed for after multiple pregnancy losses – news came that her eldest sister had died in a canoeing accident. At age two, her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; managing his condition has imposed a heavy emotional burden. And years later, she was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother as she was dying of mesothelioma. The memoir’s format – which arose in part because it was written over the course of 10 years, during stolen moments – realistically presents bereavement and caring as ongoing, cyclical challenges rather than one-time events.
There are no simple solutions offered here, nothing so pat as that ‘gardening heals all hurts’, but Bennett writes into the broken places and finds joy in what comes to life spontaneously in nature or in her ramshackle yard on a social housing estate in Cumbria. She recalls a horse chestnut tree that looked over her outside the window of her childhood home; she and her son take impish delight in guerrilla gardening and sometimes disastrous cooking projects with foraged fruit. Some of my favourite individual vignettes were “Elder,” about the magic and medicine of making elderberry syrup from the few village trees that escape the chainsaw; “Dandelion,” about her trio of older sisters, who were Greenham Common protestors and always tried to protect her as well as nature; “Herb Robert,” about her sister-in-law’s funeral; and especially “Honeysuckle,” about a local agricultural show where the officious organizers make them feel like interlopers yet her son wins first place for their feral, fecund garden.
Many side topics twine into the narrative as well: a difficult relationship with a controlling mother; a family history that takes in boarding schools, cults, road trips, risk taking and mental health issues; the economic disparity that leads to one set of rules for the rich and another for those on benefits. But the core of the book is a tender mother–son relationship. “I can give him this: a seed, with all its defiant hope against the dark; and the memory that once, we grew a garden out of rock, and waste, and all things broken, and it thrived.” Sitting somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature essays, it’s a beautiful read for any fan of women’s life writing, especially if you share the interests in grief or gardening. I hope we’ll see it recognized on the Barbellion and Wainwright Prize shortlists alike.
Readalikes I have reviewed: A Still Life by Josie George, The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick
With thanks to Victoria Bennett and Two Roads for the free copy for review.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m a big fan of Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and have her other two books lined up to read, so I was excited to hear about this new work and put it on my Most Anticipated list for the year. My interest was redoubled by Laura’s review, which likens it to a cross between Prep and My Dark Vanessa – irresistible.
Bodie Kane grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family in Indiana, and has beneficent Mormon neighbours to thank for the tuition money that allowed her to attend Granby, an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, in the early to mid-1990s. She was an angry and awkward high school student, yet her memories of Granby and the friendships she made there are still an emotional mainstay more than two decades later. In 2018, she is a successful film professor with a podcast about Hollywood starlets. Although she is separated from Jerome, her artist husband, he lives next door and they co-parent their two children.
After an invitation comes from Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting, Bodie trades Los Angeles for a bitter New England winter. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge her obsession with the 1995 murder of her former Granby roommate, Thalia Keith, who was found dead in the swimming pool one March morning after a play performance. Bodie has never been comfortable with the flawed case against the Black athletics coach, Omar Evans, who has been imprisoned ever since. When one of her students chooses to make Thalia’s murder the subject of a podcast, it’s all the justification Bodie needs to dive deep into her pet hypothesis: Thalia was sleeping with the music director, Denny Bloch, and he was involved in her death in some way. Her blinkered view threatens to exclude a key explanation. Still, the informal sleuthing she and her students do is enough to warrant a follow-up hearing in 2022, but they – and Omar – are up against a broken system.
Makkai has taken her cues from the true crime genre and constructed a convincing mesh of evidence and theories. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, from Dorian, the bully who once humiliated Bodie with sexual slurs, to Fran, the faculty kid/gay best friend who now lives and works on campus herself and continues to be Bodie’s trusty backup. The combinations of background + teenage behaviour + 40-something lives all feel authentic in their randomness (when I saw that Makkai sourced 24 names from indie bookstore supporters, I realized afresh just how real, as opposed to ‘made-up’, these characters feel).
At times I wondered if there was too much detail on the case and the former classmates; I might even have streamlined the novel by doing away with the 2022 section altogether, though it ends up being crucial to the plot. But Makkai has so carefully crafted these pen portraits, and so intimately involved us in Bodie’s psyche, that it’s easy to become invested in the story. What’s more, the novel introduces a seam of rage about violence towards women – so predictably excused and allowed to recur by a justice system weighted against victims –
What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl.
let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team. Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his d*ck in the girl’s face. … It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.
– yet also finds nuance in the situation when Bodie’s ex-husband is subjected to exaggerated #MeToo accusations. It’s timely, daring, intelligent, enthralling storytelling. Susan (review here) and I are both hoping to see this make the Women’s Prize longlist next week.
Readalikes I have reviewed: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
With thanks to Fleet for the proof copy for review.
What are the best 2023 books you’ve read so far?
February Releases by Nick Acheson, Charlotte Eichler and Nona Fernández (#ReadIndies)
Three final selections for Read Indies. I’m pleased to have featured 16 books from independent publishers this month. And how’s this for neat symmetry? I started the month with Chase of the Wild Goose and finish with a literal wild goose chase as Nick Acheson tracks down Norfolk’s flocks in the lockdown winter of 2020–21. Also appearing today are nature- and travel-filled poems and a hybrid memoir about Chilean and family history.
The Meaning of Geese: A thousand miles in search of home by Nick Acheson
I saw Nick Acheson speak at New Networks for Nature 2021 as the ‘anti-’ voice in a debate on ecotourism. He was a wildlife guide in South America and Africa for more than a decade before, waking up to the enormity of the climate crisis, he vowed never to fly again. Now he mostly stays close to home in North Norfolk, where he grew up and where generations of his family have lived and farmed, working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and appreciating the flora and fauna on his doorstep.
This was indeed to be a low-carbon initiative, undertaken on his mother’s 40-year-old red bicycle and spanning September 2021 to the start of the following spring. Whether on his own or with friends and experts, and in fair weather or foul, he became obsessed with spending as much time observing geese as he could – even six hours at a stretch. Pink-footed geese descend on the Holkham Estate in their thousands, but there were smaller flocks and rarer types as well: from Canada and greylag to white-fronted and snow geese. He also found perspective (historical, ethical and geographical) by way of Peter Scott’s conservation efforts, chats with hunters, and insight from the Icelandic researchers who watch the geese later in the year, after they leave the UK. The germane context is woven into a month-by-month diary.
The Covid-19 lockdowns spawned a number of nature books in the UK – for instance, I’ve also read Goshawk Summer by James Aldred, Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt, The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, and Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss – and although the pandemic is not a major element here, one does get a sense of how Acheson struggled with isolation as well as the normal winter blues and found comfort and purpose in birdwatching.
Tundra bean, taiga bean, brent … I don’t think I’ve seen any of these species – not even pinkfeet, to my recollection – so wished for black-and-white drawings or colour photographs in the book. That’s not to say that Acheson is not successful at painting word pictures of geese; his rich descriptions, full of food-related and sartorial metaphors, are proof of how much he revels in the company of birds. But I suspect this is a book more for birders than for casual nature-watchers like myself. I would have welcomed more autobiographical material, and Wintering by Stephen Rutt seems the more suitable geese book for laymen. Still, I admire Acheson’s fervour: “I watch birds not to add them to a list of species seen; nor to sneer at birds which are not truly wild. I watch them because they are magnificent”.
With thanks to Chelsea Green Publishing for the free copy for review.
Swimming Between Islands by Charlotte Eichler
Eichler’s debut collection was inspired by various trips to cold and remote places, such as to Lofoten 10 years ago, as she explains in a blog post on the Carcanet website. (The cover image is her painting Nusfjord.) British and Scandinavian islands and their wildlife provide much of the imagery and atmosphere. You can sink into the moss and fog, lulled by alliteration. A glance at some of the poem titles reveals the breadth of her gaze: “Brimstones” – “A Pheasant” (a perfect description in just two lines) – “A Meditation of Small Frogs” – “Trapping Moths with My Father.” There are also historical vignettes and pen portraits. The scenes of childhood, as in the four-part “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” evoke the freedom of curiosity about the natural world and feel autobiographical yet universal.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Voyager: Constellations of Memory—A Memoir by Nona Fernández (2019; 2023)
[Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer]
Our archive of memories is the closest thing we have to a record of identity. … Disjointed fragments, a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. The accumulation is what we’re made of.
When Fernández’s elderly mother started fainting and struggling with recall, it prompted the Chilean actress and writer to embark on an inquiry into memory. Astronomy provides the symbolic language here, with memory a constellation and gaps as black holes. But the stars also play a literal role. Fernández was part of an Amnesty International campaign to rename a constellation in honour of the 26 people “disappeared” in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 1973. She meets the widow of one of the victims, wondering what he might have been like as an older man as she helps to plan the star ceremony. This oblique and imaginative narrative ties together brain evolution, a medieval astronomer executed for heresy, Pinochet administration collaborators, her son’s birth, and her mother’s surprise 80th birthday party. NASA’s Voyager probes, launched in 1977, were intended as time capsules capturing something of human life at the time. The author imagines her brief memoir doing the same: “A book is a space-time capsule. It freezes the present and launches it into tomorrow as a message.”
With thanks to Daunt Books for the free copy for review.
#ReadIndies and Review Catch-up: Hazrat, Nettel, Peacock, Seldon
Another four selections for Read Indies month. I’m particularly pleased that two from this latest batch are “just because” books that I picked up off my shelves; another two are catch-up review copies. A few more indie titles will appear in my February roundup on Tuesday. For today, I have a fun variety: a history of the exclamation point, a Mexican novel about choosing motherhood versus being childfree, a memoir of a decades-long friendship between two poets, and a posthumous poetry collection with themes of history, illness and nature.
An Admirable Point: A brief history of the exclamation mark by Florence Hazrat (2022)
I’m definitely a punctuation geek. (My favourite punctuation mark is the semicolon, and there’s a book about it, too: Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, which I have on my Kindle.) One might think that strings of exclamation points are a pretty new thing – rounding off phrases in (ex-)presidential tweets, for instance – but, in fact, Hazrat opens with a Boston Gazette headline from 1788 that decried “CORRUPTION AND BRIBERY!!!” in relation to the adoption of the new Constitution.
The exclamation mark as we know it has been around since 1399, and by the 16th century its use for expression and emphasis had been codified. I was reminded of Gretchen McCulloch’s discussion of emoji in Because Internet, which also considers how written speech signifies tone, especially in the digital age. There have been various proposals for other “intonation points” over the centuries, but the question mark and exclamation mark are the two that have stuck. (Though I’m currently listening to an album called interrobang – ‽, that is. Invented by Martin Speckter in 1962; recorded by Switchfoot in 2021.)
I most enjoyed Chapter 3, on punctuation in literature. Jane Austen’s original manuscripts, replete with dashes, ampersands and exclamation points, were tidied up considerably before they made it into book form. She’s literature’s third most liberal user of exclamation marks, in terms of the number per 100,000 words, according to a chart Ben Blatt drew up in 2017, topped only by Tom Wolfe and James Joyce.
There are also sections on the use of exclamation points in propaganda and political campaigns – in conjunction with fonts, which brought to mind Simon Garfield’s Just My Type and the graphic novel ABC of Typography. It might seem to have a niche subject, but at just over 150 pages this is a cheery and diverting read for word nerds.
With thanks to Profile Books for the proof copy for review.
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
This was the Mexican author’s fourth novel; she’s also a magazine director and has published several short story collections. I’d liken it to a cross between Motherhood by Sheila Heti and (the second half of) No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Thirtysomething friends Laura and Alina veer off in different directions, yet end up finding themselves in similar ethical dilemmas. Laura, who narrates, is adamant that she doesn’t want children, and follows through with sterilization. However, when she becomes enmeshed in a situation with her neighbours – Doris, who’s been left by her abusive husband, and her troubled son Nicolás – she understands some of the emotional burden of motherhood. Even the pigeon nest she watches on her balcony presents a sort of morality play about parenthood.
Meanwhile, Alina and her partner Aurelio embark on infertility treatment. Laura fears losing her friend: “Alina was about to disappear and join the sect of mothers, those creatures with no life of their own who, zombie-like, with huge bags under their eyes, lugged prams around the streets of the city.” They eventually have a daughter, Inés, but learn before her birth that brain defects may cause her to die in infancy or be severely disabled. Right from the start, Alina is conflicted. Will she cling to Inés no matter her condition, or let her go? And with various unhealthy coping mechanisms to hand, will her relationship with Aurelio stay the course?
Laura alternates between her life and her friends’ circumstances, taking on an omniscient voice on Nettel’s behalf – she recounts details she couldn’t possibly be privy to, at least not at the time (there’s a similar strategy in The Group by Lara Feigel). The question of what is fated versus what is chosen, also represented by Laura’s interest in tarot and palm-reading, always appeals to me. This was a wry and sharp commentary on women’s options. (Giveaway win from Bookish Chat on Twitter)
Still Born was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the USA on August 8th.
A Friend Sails in on a Poem by Molly Peacock (2022)
I’ve read one of Peacock’s poetry collections, The Analyst, as well as her biography of Mary Delany, The Paper Garden. I was delighted when she got in touch to offer a review copy of her latest memoir, which reflects on her nearly half a century of friendship with fellow poet Phillis Levin. They met in a Johns Hopkins University writing seminar in 1976, and ever since have shared their work in progress over meals. They are seven years apart in age and their careers took different routes – Peacock headed up the Poetry Society of America’s subway poetry project and then moved to Toronto, while Levin taught at the University of Maryland – but over the years they developed “a sense of trust that really does feel familial … There is a weird way, in our conversations about poetry, that we share a single soul.” For a time they were both based in New York City and had the same therapist; more recently, they arranged annual summer poetry retreats in Cazenovia (recalled via diary entries), with just the two attendees. Jobs and lovers came and went, but their bond has endured.
The book traces their lives but also their development as poets, through examples of their verse. Her friend is “Phillis” in real life, but “Levin” when it’s her work is being discussed – and her own poems are as written by “Peacock.” Both women became devoted to the sonnet, an unusual choice because at the time that they were graduate students free verse reigned and form was something one had to learn on one’s own time. Stanza means “room,” Peacock reminds readers, and she believes there is something about form that opens up space, almost literally but certainly metaphorically, to re-examine experience. She repeatedly tracks how traumatic childhood events, as much as everyday observations, were transmuted into her poetry. Levin did so, too, but with an opposite approach: intellectual and universal where Peacock was carnal and personal. That paradox of difference yet likeness is the essence of the friendships we sail on. What a lovely read, especially if you’re curious about ‘where poems come from’; I’d particularly recommend it to fans of Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty.
With thanks to Molly Peacock and Palimpsest Press for the free e-copy for review.
The Bright White Tree by Joanna Seldon (Worple Press, 2017)
This appeared the year after Seldon died of cancer; were it not for her untimely end and her famous husband Anthony (a historian and political biographer), I’m not sure it would have been published, as the poetry is fairly mediocre, with some obvious rhymes and twee sentiments. I wouldn’t want to speak ill of the dead, though, so think of this more like a self-published work collected in tribute, and then no problem. Some of the poems were written from the Royal Marsden Hospital, with “Advice” a useful rundown of how to be there for a friend undergoing cancer treatment (text to let them know you’re thinking of them; check before calling, or visiting briefly; bring sanctioned snacks; don’t be afraid to ask after their health).
Seldon takes inspiration from history (the story of Kitty Pakenham, the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas), travels in England and abroad (“Robin in York” vs. “Tuscan Garden”), and family history. Her Jewish heritage is clear from poems about Israel, National Holocaust Memorial Day and Rosh Hashanah. Her own suffering is put into perspective in “A Cancer Patient Visits Auschwitz.” There are also ekphrastic responses to art and literature (a Gaugin, A Winter’s Tale, Jane Eyre, and so on). I particularly liked “Conker,” a reminder of a departed loved one “So is a good life packed full of doing / That may grow warm with others, even when / The many years have turned, and darkness filled / Places where memory shone bright and strong. / I feel the conker and feel he is here.” (New bargain book from Waterstones online sale with Christmas book token)
There are haikus dotted through the collection; here’s one perfect for the season:
Maids demure, white tips to
Mob caps… Look now! They’ve
Splattered the lawn with snow
Have you discovered any new-to-you independent publishers recently?
A Trip to Kyoto with Muriel Barbery and Florentyna Leow (#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies)
One of my most recent Book Serendipity incidents was reading these two 139-page books about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often touring temples) at the same time. They’re also both from independent publishers, so I’m taking the opportunity to review them together for Read Indies month. The Barbery is also towards Marina Sofia’s casual French February challenge.
A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson]
That Barbery is a Japanophile was clear from her whimsical The Writer’s Cats, which I reviewed for Novellas in November in 2021. Here she takes inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic of minimalist prose, melancholy walks in rainy gardens, and a mixture of legends and stoic Buddhist philosophy. Rose, the half-French, half-Japanese protagonist, is in Kyoto to hear the reading of the will made by her late father, Haru, a contemporary art dealer.
A 40-year-old botanist, Rose is adrift, her father’s death just the latest in a string of losses that have caused her to close off her heart. Her time in Kyoto, while she waits to meet with the lawyer, is a low-key cycle of visits to gardens and Buddhist temples, sake-soused meals, going to bed sad and tipsy, and waking up to rain and preparing to do it all over again. Her minder is Paul, a Belgian who was her father’s assistant. They initially find each other irritating, but are gradually drawn together as two damaged souls.
There are lovely descriptive passages, and the theme of the inescapability of suffering cannot be refuted. The universality of loss comes across in key quotes from Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke, respectively: “in this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers” and “A single rose is every rose.” Still, I somehow found this work both too subtle (the only vaguely relevant chapter-opening snippets of history or legend) and too obvious (“Everybody hurts” is hardly a groundbreaking message). This was my third novella by Barbery. Shall I carry on and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog as well?
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow (2023)
On the face of it, this collection has quite a lot in common with Nina Mingya Powles’s Tiny Moons, from the same publisher: travel- and food-inspired essays that loop through some of the same experiences of loneliness and disorientation. The writers also have a similar background, with Leow a Malaysian Chinese woman living in Japan. She is able to pass for Japanese and so is experienced at code-switching as she moves from temple to jazz bar to teahouse and learns new dialects and accents.
For some years she made a living by leading tours she could never have afforded herself. Much as she loves Kyoto and its sights, she tired of the crowds and of seeing the same temples all the time. It took a stranger observing that she seemed unhappy in her work for her too realize it was time for a change.
This disillusionment and the end of her friendship with her female housemate are the main themes of this short book, especially in the six-part title essay. Interestingly, she describes the end of their relationship in the sort of terms that would generally be used for a romantic break-up, despondently querying what went wrong between them when they had been so happy picking and cooking the fruit from the persimmon tree outside their apartment window. Indeed, later on she cites the concept of a “romantic friendship.”
But I think what she was really mourning was the temporary nature of life. We’re nostalgic for golden times we can never get back. I think of parts of my early twenties like that. I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life now to go back in time (or maybe I would), but those periods will always glow in my memory.
My favourite essays were “Persimmons,” “A Bowl of Tea,” “A Rainy Day in Kyoto” and “Egg Love” – prove you care for someone by learning how they like their eggs. This wasn’t a particularly stand-out read for me, especially in comparison to the Powles, but I’d happily read more by Leow in the future.
A favourite passage:
REASONS FOR TEA
To celebrate. To thank someone. To enjoy the scent of different incense. To listen to the rain. To view an autumn moon reflected on a pond outside. To watch snow blanket the garden. To hear the texture of that silence. To walk through freshly fallen snow before dawn on the way to the teahouse. To drink tea by candlelight. To remember someone. To bask in the light, the cool of early summer mornings. Because it is spring. Because the leaves are changing colour. Because it is autumn. Because the plum blossoms are out. Because the world is beautiful. Because why not?
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart will be published on 23 February. With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.
Learning How to Be Sad via Books by Susan Cain and Helen Russell
There’s been a lot of sadness in my life over the past few months. If there’s a key lesson I learned from the latest work by these authors, who are among the best self-help writers out there, it’s that denying sadness is the worst thing we could do. Accepting sadness helps us to be compassionate towards others and to acknowledge but ultimately let go of generational pain. There are measures we can take to mitigate sadness – a focus of the second half of Russell’s book – but it can’t be avoided altogether. Alongside the classics of bereavement literature I have been rereading, I found these two books to be valuable companions in grief.
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain (2022)
Cain’s Quiet must be one of the best-known nonfiction books of the millennium. It felt like vindication for introverts everywhere. Bittersweet is a little more nebulous in strategy but, boiled down, is a defence of the melancholic personality, one of the types identified by Aristotle (also explored in Richard Holloway’s The Heart of Things). Sadness is not the same as clinical depression, Cain rushes to clarify, though the two might coexist. Melancholy is often associated with creativity and sensitivity, and can lead us into empathy for others. Suffering and death seem like things to flee, but if we sit with them, we will truly be part of the human race and, per the “wounded healer” archetype, may also work toward restoration.
A love for minor-key music, especially songs by Leonard Cohen, is what initially drew Cain to this topic, but there are other autobiographical seeds: the deaths of many ancestors, including her rabbi grandfather’s entire family, in the Holocaust; her difficult relationship with her controlling mother, who now has dementia; and the deaths from Covid of both her brother, a hospital doctor, and her elderly father in 2020.
Through interviews and attendance at conferences and other events, she draws in various side topics, like the longing that prompts mysticism (Kabbalah and Sufism), loving-kindness meditation, an American culture of positivity that demands “effortless perfection,” ways the business world could cultivate empathy, and how knowledge of death makes life precious. (The only chapter I found less than essential was one about transhumance – the hope of escaping death altogether. Mark O’Connell has that topic covered.) Cain weaves together her research with autobiographical material naturally. As a shy introvert with melancholy tendencies, I found both Quiet and Bittersweet comforting.
With thanks to Viking (Penguin) for the proof copy for review.
How to Be Sad: The Key to a Happier Life by Helen Russell (2021)
A reread, though I only skimmed the first time around – my tiny points of criticism would be that the book is a tad long – the print in the paperback is really rather small – and retreads some of the same ground as Leap Year (e.g., how exercise and culture can contribute to a sense of wellbeing). I read that just last year, after enjoying The Year of Living Danishly with my book club. She’s a reliable nonfiction author; I’d liken her to a funnier Gretchen Rubin.
Russell has an appealingly self-deprecating style and breezily highlights statistics alongside personal anecdotes. Here she faces sources of sadness in her life head-on: her younger sister’s death from SIDS and the silence that surrounded that loss; her parents’ divorce and her sense of being abandoned by her father; struggles with eating disorders and alcohol and exercise addiction; and relationship trials, from changing herself to please boyfriends to undergoing IVF with her husband, T (aka “Legoman”), and adjusting to life as a mother of three.
As in her other self-help work, she interviews lots of experts and people who have gone through similar things to understand why we’re sad and what to do about it. I particularly appreciated chapters on “arrival fallacy” and “summit syndrome,” both of which refer to a feeling of letdown after we achieve what we think will make us happy, whether that be parenthood or the South Pole. Better to have intrinsic goals than external ones, Russell learns.
She also considers cultural differences in how we approach sadness: for instance, Russians relish sadness and teach their children to do the same, whereas the English, especially men, are expected to bury their feelings. Russell notes a waning of the rituals that could help us cope with loss, and a rise in unhealthy coping mechanisms. Like Cain, she also covers sad music (vs. one of her interviewees prescribing Jack Johnson as a mood equalizer). There are lots of laughs to be had, but the epilogue can’t fail to bring a tear to the eye. (Public library)
I found this quote from the Russell a handy summary of both authors’ premise. Dr Lucy Johnstone says:
“The key question when encountering someone with mental or emotional distress shouldn’t be, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but rather, ‘What’s happened to you?’”
Suffering is coming for all of us, so why not arm yourself to deal with it and help others through? That’s always been one of my motivations for reading widely: to understand other people’s situations and prepare myself for what the future holds.
Could you see yourself reading a book about sadness?
Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Book of Hours by Letty McHugh
The Barbellion Prize shortlist, announced yesterday, consists of the short story collection Polluted Sex and the novel Chouette, both of which I’m still keen to read; and two nonfiction works, Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed last year, and Letty McHugh’s hybrid memoir, Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul.
I’m saving up tiny joys the way a bear fattens up for the coming winter
A patchwork quilt of ordinary leftover happiness
to keep me warm through the darkest part of the night.
In medieval times, a book of hours was a devotional book that set out the day’s prayers. Usually an illuminated manuscript, it was a precious object for laypeople, and a way of marking time. For Letty McHugh, a Yorkshire-based visual artist who lives with chronic pain and illness, this book of hours is many things: a journal, a scrapbook, an enquiry into the monastic impulse, and an interrogation of the potential meanings of physical suffering.
In April 2020, McHugh experienced a relapse of MS so bad she had to move back in with her parents and was sleeping 20 hours a day. Her sphere had contracted to a single room. If only, she wished, there was “something to concentrate on that wasn’t my unravelling body or the unravelling world.” A Catholic upbringing and childhood holidays in Northumberland made her think about the early Christian hermits and saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Julian of Norwich who salvaged something from solitude, who out of the privations of monasticism made monuments of faith and, sometimes, written documents, too.
This was the inspiration behind her own book of hours, which intersperses poems and photographs of found objects (wildflowers, animal skulls, sea glass and shells) with biographical sketches of saints, short autobiographical essays about her childhood and career, and musings on faith and pain. Metaphors of magic and outer space contrast with the claustrophobia of “the illness place,” somewhere she knows she’ll return to again and again. Although she knows she will never be perfectly holy or perfectly productive, she is encouraged to know that even those with confined lives (such as Emily Dickinson) can have a rich inner existence. While she resists the desire for a cure, or for a simple meaning to suffering, she bears witness to the fact that creativity can emerge in spite of everything.
I enjoyed spending time with this meticulously crafted and meditative work that engages with the present moment but also the eternal. It’s perfect onward reading for fans of the inaugural Barbellion Prize winner, Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, and A Still Life by Josie George, a shortlistee from last year.
Book of Hours was self-published with assistance from Disability Arts Online. You can buy a signed copy of the handmade book from her Etsy shop, or read the text for free here.
With thanks to Letty McHugh for sending a free e-copy for review.
This year’s Barbellion Prize judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The winner will be announced in February.
The Swedish Art of Ageing Well by Margareta Magnusson (#NordicFINDS23)
Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge is running for the second time this month. I hope to manage at least one more read for it; this one feels like a cheat as it’s not exactly in translation. Magnusson, who is Swedish, either wrote it in English or translated it herself for simultaneous 2022 publication in Sweden and the USA – where the title phrase was “Aging Exuberantly.” There is some quirky phrasing that a native speaker would never use, more so than in her Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which I reviewed last year, but it’s perfectly understandable.
The subtitle is “Life wisdom from someone who will (probably) die before you,” which gives a flavour of 89-year-old Magnusson’s self-deprecating sense of humour. The big 4-0 is coming up for me later this year, but I’ve been reading books about ageing and death since my twenties and find them valuable for gaining perspective and storing up wisdom.
This is not one of those “hygge” books extolling the virtues of Scandinavian culture, but rather a charming self-help memoir recounting what the author has learned about what matters in life and how to gracefully accept the ageing process. Each chapter is like a mini essay with a piece of advice as the title. Some are more serious than others: “Don’t Fall Over” and “Keep an Open Mind” vs. “Eat Chocolate” and “Wear Stripes.”
Since Magnusson was widowed, she has valued her friendships all the more, and during the pandemic cheerfully switched to video chats (G&T in hand) with her best friend since age eight. She is sweetly optimistic despite news headlines; after all, in the words of one of her chapter titles, “The World Is Always Ending” – she grew up during World War II and remembers the bad old days of the Cold War and personal near-tragedies like when the ship on which her teenage son was a deckhand temporarily disappeared in the South China Sea.
Lots of little family anecdotes like that enter into the book. Magnusson has five children and lived in Singapore and Annapolis, Maryland (my part of the world!) for a time. The open-mindedness I’ve mentioned was an attitude she cultivated towards new-to-her customs like a Chinese wedding, Christian adult baptism, and Halloween. Happy memories are her emotional support; as for physical assistance: “I call my walker Lars Harald, after my husband who is no longer with me. The walker, much like my husband was, is my support and my safety.”
Volunteering, spending lots of time with younger people, looking after another living thing (a houseplant if you can’t commit to a pet), turning daily burdens into beloved routines, and keeping your hair looking as nice as possible are some of Magnusson’s top tips for coping.
An appendix gives additional death-cleaning guidance based on Covid-era FAQs; the chapter in this book that is most reminiscent of the practical approach of Döstädning is “Don’t Leave Empty-Handed,” which might sound metaphorical but in fact is a literal mantra she learned from an acquaintance. On a small scale, it might mean tidying a room gradually by picking up at least one item each time you pass through; more generally, it could refer to a mindset of cleaning up after oneself so that the world is a better place for one’s presence.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.