Category: Nonfiction Reviews

Recent Bylines: Glamour, Shiny New Books, Etc.

Following up on my post from June, here are excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for places that aren’t my blog.

 

Review essay of Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman for Glamour UK

The female body has been a source of deep embarrassment for Altman, but here she swaps shame for self-deprecating silliness and cringing for chuckling. Through a snappy blend of personal anecdotes and intensive research, she exposes the cultural expectations that make us dislike our bodies, suggesting that a better knowledge of anatomy might help us feel normal. While 11 of her 15 topics aren’t exclusive to women’s anatomy—birthmarks, hemorrhoids, warts and more apply to men, too—she always presents an honest account of the female experience. This is one of my favorite books of the year and one I’d recommend to women of any age. It’s funny, it’s feminist, and it’s a cracking good read. (My full review is complete with embarrassing personal revelations!) 

 

Essay on two books about “wasting time” for the Los Angeles Review of Books

 In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman  &

The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl: A poet’s delight in lyricism and free association is in evidence here. The book blends memoir with travel and biographical information about some of Hampl’s exemplars of solitary, introspective living, and it begins, quite literally, with daydreaming. 

Hampl and Lightman start from the same point of frazzled frustration and arrive at many of the same conclusions about the necessity of “wasted” time but go about it in entirely different ways. Lightman makes a carefully constructed argument and amasses a sufficient weight of scientific and anecdotal evidence; Hampl drifts and dreams through seemingly irrelevant back alleys of memory and experience. The latter is a case of form following function: her book wanders along with her mind, in keeping with her definition of memoir as “lyrical quest literature,” where meaning always hovers above the basics of plot.

 

Book list for OZY on the refugee crisis & another coming up on compassion in medicine.

 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews

(Their website is notoriously unreliable, so the links may not work for you). Upcoming: A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits. Latest:

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau

Chamoiseau is a social worker and author from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Translator Linda Coverdale has chosen to leave snippets of Martinican Creole in this text, creating a symphony of languages. The novel has an opening that might suit a gloomy fairytale: “In slavery times in the sugar isles, once there was an old black man.” The novel’s language is full of delightfully unexpected verbs and metaphors. At not much more than 100 pages, it is a nightmarish novella that alternates between feeling like a nebulous allegory and a realistic escaped slave narrative. It can be a disorienting experience: like the slave, readers are trapped in a menacing forest and prone to hallucinations. The lyricism of the writing and the brief glimpse back from the present day, in which an anthropologist discovers the slave’s remains and imagines the runaway back into life, give this book enduring power. 

 

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

Barry Cohen, a conceited hedge fund manager under SEC investigation for insider trading, sets out on a several-month picaresque road trip in the second half of 2016. The ostensible aim is to find his college girlfriend, but he forms fleeting connections with lots of ordinary folks along the way. Barry may be a figure of fun, but it’s unpleasant to spend so much time with his chauvinism (“he never remembered women’s names” but gets plenty of them to sleep with him), which isn’t fully tempered by alternating chapters from his wife’s perspective. Pitched somewhere between the low point of “Make America Great Again” and the loftiness of the Great American novel, Lake Success may not achieve the profundity it’s aiming for, but it’s still a biting portrait of an all-too-recognizable America where money is God and villains gets off easy. 

 

Shiny New Books reviews

(Upcoming: Nine Pints by Rose George and Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers.) Latest:

The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins 

Atkins has produced an appealing blend of vivid travel anecdotes, historical background and philosophical musings. He is always conscious that he is treading in the footsteps of earlier adventurers. He has no illusions about being a pioneer here; rather, he eagerly picks up the thematic threads others have spun out of desert experience and runs with them – things like solitude, asceticism, punishment for wrongdoing and environmental degradation. The book is composed of seven long chapters, each set in a different desert. In my favorite segment, the author rents a cabin in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona for $100 a week. My interest waxed and waned from chapter to chapter, but readers of travelogues should find plenty to enjoy. Few of us would have the physical or emotional fortitude to repeat Atkins’s journeys, but we get the joy of being armchair travelers instead. 

 

Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens

I was ambivalent about the author’s first book (Bleaker House), but for a student of the Victorian period this was unmissable, and the meta aspect was fun and not off-putting this time. Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. One strand covers the last decade of Gaskell’s life, but what makes it so lively and unusual is that Stevens almost always speaks of Gaskell as “you.” The intimacy of that address ensures her life story is anything but dry. The other chapters are set between 2013 and 2017 and narrated in the present tense, which makes Stevens’s dilemmas feel pressing. For much of the first two years her PhD takes a backseat to her love life. She’s obsessed with Max, a friend and unrequited crush from her Boston University days who is now living in Paris. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive. 

 

Times Literary Supplement reviews

I’ve recently submitted my sixth and seventh for publication. All of them have been behind a paywall so far, alas. (Upcoming: Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul; On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén.) Latest:

How To Build A Boat: A Father, his Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea by Jonathan Gornall

Gornall’s genial memoir is the story of a transformation and an adventure, as a fifty-something freelance journalist gets an unexpected second chance at fatherhood and decides to build his daughter, Phoebe, a boat. It was an uncharacteristic resolution for “a man who [had] never knowingly wielded a plane or a chisel,” yet in a more metaphorical way it made sense: the sea was in his family’s blood. Gornall nimbly conveys the precarious financial situation of the freelancer, as well as the challenges of adjusting to new parenthood late in life. This is a refreshingly down-to-earth account. The nitty-gritty details of the construction will appeal to some readers more than to others, but one can’t help admiring the combination of craftsmanship and ambition. (Full review in September 7th issue.) 

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Heart and Mind: New Nonfiction by Sandeep Jauhar and Jan Morris

Heart: A History, by Sandeep Jauhar

There could hardly be an author better qualified to deliver this thorough history of the heart and the treatment of its problems. Sandeep Jauhar is the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Medical Center. His family history – both grandfathers died of sudden cardiac events in India, one after being bitten by a snake – prompted an obsession with the heart, and he and his brother both became cardiologists. As the book opens, Jauhar was shocked to learn he had up to a 50% blockage of his own coronary vessels. Things had really gotten personal.

Cardiovascular disease has been the #1 killer in the West since 1910 and, thanks to steady smoking rates and a continuing rise in obesity and sedentary lifestyles, will still affect 60% of Americans. However, the key is that fewer people will now die of heart disease thanks to the developments of the last six decades in particular. These include the heart–lung machine, cardiac catheterization, heart transplantation, and artificial hearts.

Along the timeline, Jauhar peppers in bits of his own professional and academic experience, like experimenting on frogs during high school in California and meeting his first cadaver at medical school. My favorite chapter was the twelfth, “Vulnerable Heart,” which is about how trauma can cause heart arrhythmias; it opens with an account of the author’s days cataloguing body parts in a makeshift morgue as a 9/11 first responder. I also particularly liked his account of being called out of bed to perform an echocardiogram, which required catching a taxi at 3 a.m. and avoiding New York City’s rats.

Maybe I’ve read too much surgical history this year (The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris and Face to Face by Jim McCaul), though, because I found myself growing fairly impatient with the medical details in the long Part II, which centers on the heart as a machine, and was drawn more to the autobiographical material in the first and final sections. Perhaps I would prefer Jauhar’s first book, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation.

In terms of readalikes, I’d mention Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, in which the personal story also takes something of a backseat to the science, and Gavin Francis’s Shapeshifters, which exhibits a similar interest in the metaphors applied to the body. While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as two other heart-themed memoirs I’ve read, The Sanctuary of Illness by Thomas Larson and Echoes of Heartsounds by Martha Weinman Lear, I still think it’s a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize (the judging panel is announced tomorrow!).


Some favorite lines:

“it is increasingly clear that the biological heart is extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system—to the metaphorical heart, if you will.”
“Who but the owner can say what lies inside a human heart?”

“As a heart-failure specialist, I’d experienced enough death to fill up a lifetime. At one time, it was difficult to witness the grief of loved ones. But my heart had been hardened, and this was no longer that time.”

My rating:

Heart is published in the UK today, September 27th, by Oneworld. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary, by Jan Morris

I’ve been an admirer of Jan Morris’s autobiographical and travel writing for 15 years or more. In this diary covering 2017 into early 2018, parts of which were originally published in the Financial Times and the Welsh-language literary newspaper O’r Pedwar Gwynt, we get a glimpse into her life in her early nineties. It was a momentous time in the world at large but a fairly quiet and reflective span for her personally. Though each day’s headlines seem to herald chaos and despair, she’s a blithe spirit – good-natured about the ravages of old age and taking delight in the routines of daily one-mile walks down the lane and errands in local Welsh towns with her beloved partner Elizabeth, who’s in the early stages of dementia.

There are thrilling little moments, though, when a placid domestic life (a different kind of marmalade with breakfast each day of the week!) collides with exotic past experiences, and suddenly we’re plunged into memories of travels in Swaziland and India. Back when she was still James, Morris served in World War II, was the Times journalist reporting from the first ascent of Everest, and wrote a monolithic three-volume history of the British Empire. She took her first airplane flight 70 years ago, and is nostalgic for the small-town America she first encountered in the 1950s. Hold all that up against her current languid existence among the books and treasures of Trefan Morys and it seems she’s lived enough for many lifetimes.

There’s a good variety of topics here, ranging from current events to Morris’s love of cats; I particularly liked the fragments of doggerel. However, as is often the case with diaries, read too many entries in one go and you may start to find the sequence of (non-)events tedious. Each piece is only a page or two, so I tried never to read many more than 10 pages at a time. Even so, I noticed that the plight of zoo animals, clearly a hobby-horse, gets mentioned several times. It seemed to me a strange issue to get worked up about, especially as enthusiastic meat-eating and killing mice with traps suggest that she’s not applying a compassionate outlook consistently.

In the end, though, kindness is Morris’s cardinal virtue, and despite minor illness, telephone scams and a country that looks to be headed to the dogs, she’s encouraged by the small acts of kindness she meets with from friends and strangers alike. Like Diana Athill (whose Alive, Alive Oh! this resembles), I think of Morris as a national treasure, and I was pleased to spend some time seeing things from her perspective.


Some favorite lines:

“If I set out in the morning for my statutory thousand daily paces up the lane, … I enjoy the fun of me, the harmless conceit, the guileless complexity and the merriment. When I go walking in the evening, on the other hand, … I shall recognize what I don’t like about myself – selfishness, self-satisfaction, foolish self-deceit and irritability. Morning pride, then, and evening shame.” (from Day 99)

“Good or bad, virile or senile, there’s no life like the writer’s life.” (from Day 153)

My rating:

In My Mind’s Eye was published by Faber & Faber on September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

Help Me! by Marianne Power: A Self-Help Quest

Outwardly Marianne Power’s life was fine, but deep down she felt unhappy and unfulfilled. An Irish freelance journalist living in London, she was 36 and single. “There has to be more than just working and paying bills and buying crap we don’t need,” she felt. She’d been an obsessive reader of self-help books for years – Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway inspired her to leave her temp job at age 24 – but she realized that she’d never implemented most of the books’ lessons. So instead of just reading self-help, she set out to do self-help, one book per month, for a year (though it ended up being longer) to see if she could truly change her life.

January was a baptism of fire. Jumping in with that old favorite, Jeffers’s Feel the Fear, Power listed things she was afraid of and then did one per day: an outdoor swim on New Year’s Day, nude modeling for an art class, parallel parking, standup comedy, and skydiving. In subsequent months she tackled her disastrous finances (Money, A Love Story), tested out the law of attraction (The Secret), practiced lots of rejection therapy, worked on relinquishing control (F**k It), attended a Tony Robbins “Unleash the Power Within” seminar, and imagined what she’d want said at her funeral (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).

There came a point in the year when Power had to admit she was physically rundown and emotionally shattered. Months spent focusing on herself had alienated her from friends and family – even her mum, a wonderfully matter-of-fact character who believes in just getting on with life instead of moaning about it. A trio of truly useful books (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay) started to turn the tide, helping Power counter negative thoughts with positive affirmations and reminding her that self-help is futile because you can never go it alone. Being with other people who understand you, volunteering and exercise: these are the things that really help.

I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months (“Do a budget, make a plan. Two phrases that made me break into a cold sweat”). If I have one tiny complaint, it’s that I might have liked a little more context on the books she chose. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.

My rating:

 

Favorite passage:

“The dangerous expectation that can be created by self-help books is that if you’re not walking around like a cross between Mary Poppins, Buddha and Jesus every day you’re doing it wrong. You must try harder. … The higher I was setting my standards the more I was feeling like a failure.”

(I also loved the pep talk from a taxi driver who got depressed when doing a PhD on Thomas Hardy!)

 


Full disclosure: Marianne and I are Facebook friends and she arranged for me to be sent a proof copy of Help Me! The finished book was released by Picador on September 6th.

Roald Dahl Day Blog Tour: “Boy” & More

Like so many children on both sides of the Atlantic, I grew up with Roald Dahl’s classic tales: James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda. I was aware that he had published work for adults, too, but hadn’t experienced any of it until I was asked to join this blog tour in advance of Roald Dahl Day on September 13th.

Last year Penguin brought out an eight-volume paperback set of Dahl’s short stories, grouped thematically. I focused on Innocence: Tales of Youth and Guile, which opens with a reprint of Boy (1984), the closest thing to an autobiography that Dahl wrote. That’s in spite of his prefatory disclaimer:

An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography. … throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten. … Some are funny. Some are painful. … All are true.

Dahl’s father was a one-armed shipbroker who’d moved from Norway to Wales for the coal. His mother, Harald’s second wife, was also from Norway, so Dahl was a full-blooded Norwegian. After his father’s early death he attended Llandaff Cathedral School and then boarding school and public school in England. Sofie Dahl, quietly tough, tended her brood of six children and stepchildren, giving them magical summers on a Norwegian island and keeping her cool during the car accident in which Dahl’s nose was almost severed.

Any time they were separated, Dahl wrote to his mother once a week, without fail. The book includes facsimile excerpts from some of these letters, along with black-and-white family photographs and drawings. This is more of a scrapbook than a straightforward chronological memoir, especially in the way that it moves between playful and disturbing vignettes from Dahl’s school days. It’s particularly delightful to spot incidents that inspired his children’s books, such as a plot to plant a dead mouse in the mean sweet shop lady’s gobstopper jar and the boxes of new-recipe Cadbury’s chocolates that would arrive at Repton School for testing by eager boys.

Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here. But so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Dahl had his adenoids removed without anesthesia, and at school he received and witnessed many a vicious caning. Aware that such scenes are accumulating uncomfortably, he addresses the topic directly:

By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.

When he graduated, instead of going to Oxford or Cambridge, he wanted to see the world and have adventures, so he spent the summer of 1934 exploring Newfoundland and joined the Shell Company at age 18. His first placement was to East Africa for three years; soon afterwards he would become a fighter pilot in the Second World War. In the short years he spent as a London commuter, he realized how easy a 9-to-5 office job is compared to making a living as a writer. (I could sympathize.)

The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. … A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul.

I don’t often like reading books from a child’s perspective (particularly novels with a child narrator) because I find that the voice can ring false. Not so here. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20. I’d highly recommend Boy to fiction and nonfiction readers alike.

My rating:

 

I dipped into Trickery: Tales of Deceit and Cunning and particularly liked “The Wish,” in which a boy imagines a carpet is a snakepit and then falls into it, and “Princess Mammalia,” a Princess Bride-style black comedy about a royal who decides to wrest power from her father but gets her mischief turned right back on her. I’ll also pick up Fear, Dahl’s curated set of ghost stories by other authors, during October for the R.I.P. challenge.

 

My thanks to the publisher for free copies of four volumes of the tales.

 

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Roald Dahl Day. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared and will be appearing.

Ladders to Heaven: The Secret History of Fig Trees

A whole book about fig trees? That’s right! If you’re a voracious nonfiction reader like me, you’ll find freelance journalist Mike Shanahan’s history of fig trees unexpectedly fascinating. It opens with him atop a series of ladders in a national park in Borneo, reaching past a venomous snake to pick some figs. He did many such exciting things in his research towards a PhD in rainforest ecology, but that 1998 encounter was significantly more intrepid than his earliest experience with the genus: he remembers a potted weeping fig in the hallway of his childhood home.

From that little tree to the largest banyans, Ficus encompasses 750+ species and has had a major place in human culture for millennia. Fig trees turn up in Greek origin myths and are sacred to Hindus. Romulus and Remus were rescued from drowning in the Tiber by fig tree roots. The tree the Buddha sat under to meditate? A fig. The fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden? More likely a fig than an apple given the Middle Eastern climate and the fact that they then sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. (The confusion may have come about because in Latin malum means either “apple” or “evil”.)

Figs offer some biological surprises. For one thing, the plants have no apparent flowers. That’s because the flowers are internal: a fig is not technically a fruit but a hollow ball lined with tiny flowers that must be pollinated by two-millimeter-long fig-wasps. Strangler figs colonize a host tree, starting as a seed in the canopy and enveloping it in long tangled roots. Many tropical birds and mammals rely on figs, including monkeys and hornbills. Figs were, Shanahan writes, the “original superfood” for our primate ancestors.

The habitats where fig trees thrive face severe challenges, including drought, forest fires and poaching. However, history offers encouraging examples of how fig species can be key to tropical forest restoration. After a volcano erupted on Papua New Guinea in 1660, for example, the razed land was fairly quickly recolonized by Ficus species from seeds dropped by birds and bats – a prerequisite for wildlife returning. Similarly, fig trees were all that remained of the forest on Krakatoa after its famous volcanic eruption in 1883.

Building on this precedent, the Forest Restoration Research Unit, based in Thailand, now uses fig species to kickstart the restitution of tropical landscapes; one in every five of their plantings is a fig. Likewise, figs can be used to restore post-mining landscapes and lock up carbon. Researchers are looking into using drones to collect and deposit the seeds.

I’d never realized how often figs show up in the historical record, or how dependent on them we and other creatures have been. “Look after fig trees and they will look after you. It’s a lesson we have all but forgotten, but one we could learn again,” Shanahan concludes. Have a look at the bibliography and you’ll see just how much information is synthesized into this short, engaging book. It’s another gorgeous design from Unbound, too: the colorful cover was what first attracted me, and the author’s black-and-white pointillist illustrations adorn the text.

Nowadays I tend to think of figs as an exotic, luxury food. Every year we add some dried figs to our Christmas cake, creating caramel bursts of crunchy seeds. When my husband and I lived in Reading, we briefly had a LandShare arrangement to look after an established garden. Hidden behind a suburban fence, it was a secret paradise overflowing with fruit: plum, greengage and apple trees plus a fruit cage containing berries, currants, and – in one corner – a small fig. I remember one glorious late summer when we were inundated with more ripe figs than I’d ever seen before. We would heat them in the oven and serve them split open and oozing with goat’s cheese and runny honey. Our very own taste of Eden.

My rating:

 


Ladders to Heaven was first published by Unbound in 2016 and releases in paperback today, September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

Polishing off My 20 Books of Summer with Hay, Jones & Markham

I finished off strong with a few books I’ve been meaning to read for months or years.

 

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

(This was a Twitter buddy read with Naomi of Consumed by Ink and Penny of Literary Hoarders.) I read my first novel by Hay, A Student of Weather, last year. It was wonderfully rewarding even though it took me a month to read. By contrast, I read the Giller Prize-winning Late Nights on Air in half that time. Most of it is set in 1975–7 in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Here winter lasts for eight months and you can still meet with snow and frozen lakes in early July. A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor.

Everyone is in love with everyone else, so you get these layers of unrequited romance and a sense of exposure: not just to the elements, but to the vulnerabilities of admitting one’s feelings and risking professional failure. The novel is also about appearances and assumptions – “You don’t look anything like how you sound,” Gwen says to Harry – and the dangers of obsession. Four of the station employees set out one summer to recreate the six-week journey of Arctic explorer John Hornby, a trip that ends up being as wondrous as it is fraught. Hay’s foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed, and I found the final chapters after the expedition a slight letdown, but overall this is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation. I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter. I need to read the rest of Hay’s oeuvre stat.

Favorite passages:

Harry’s professional advice to Gwen: “Radio was like poetry, he told her. At its best it could be, while television was like a blockbuster novel: one made you think and feel, the other dulled your mind. … ‘To be any good you have to believe it’s hard. It’s called creative tension. … And you won’t be any good until you’re dedicated to something outside yourself.’ … I learned that a mistake is just something you go on from.

“Something blossoms in an unlikely place. An oasis of trees miles above the treeline. An arctic river warmer than any other water they’d come upon. The four of them bathed in the waters of the Thelon, wading out into it, almost swimming. On shore they towelled themselves dry and dressed, and there was no feeling to equal the splendour of warm clothes on river-cold skin.”

My rating:

 


I ran out of time for Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so substituted in…

 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

(If it’s good enough for Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, it’s good enough for me!)

The title feels like an echo of An American Tragedy. It’s both monolithic and generic, as if saying: Here’s a marriage; make of it what you will. Is it representative of the average American situation, or is it exceptional? Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. Through their alternating first-person narration and their letters back and forth while Roy is incarcerated, we learn more about this couple: how their family circumstances shaped them, how they met, and how they drift apart as Celestial turns to her childhood friend, Andre, for companionship. When Roy is granted early release, he returns to Georgia to find Celestial and see what might remain of their marriage. I ached for all three main characters: It’s an impossible situation. The novel ends probably the only way it could, on a realistic yet gently optimistic note. Life goes on, if not how you expect, and there will be joys still to come.

This would make a great book club pick: there’s a lot to probe about the characters’ personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration. I found it remarkable how the letters, which together make up not even one-fifth of the text, enhance the raw honesty of the book. There are other marriages on display besides Roy and Celestial’s, their range providing a snapshot of African-American lower-middle- and upper-middle-class life in the South. I especially liked the use of two totem objects, Roy’s tooth and the hickory tree outside Celestial’s childhood home (what you see on the cover).

Favorite lines:

Celestial: “I believed that our marriage was a fine-spun tapestry, fragile but fixable. We tore it often and mended it, always with a silken thread, lovely but sure to give way.”

Andre: “I don’t believe that blood makes a family; kin is the circle you create, hands held tight.”

Celestial: “Our marriage was a sapling graft that didn’t have time to take.”

Roy: “mostly my life is good, only it’s a different type of good from what I figured on.”

My rating:


An American Marriage was published in the UK by Oneworld on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)

(Another Twitter buddy read, with Laila of Big Reading Life.) I’ve meant to pick this up ever since I read Paula McLain’s fantastic novel about Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun. I loved Markham’s memoir even more. She writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds.

It took me a while to get used to the structure – this is a set of discrete stories rather than a chronological narrative – but whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar. Ernest Hemingway once asserted in a letter that Markham could “write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers,” and I certainly enjoyed this more than anything I’ve read by Hemingway.

The text is bookended by two momentous flights: it opens with Markham scrambling to deliver oxygen to an injured miner, and ends with her completing the first east–west solo flight across the Atlantic in 1936. Her engine cut out multiple times; it’s no less than a miracle that she survived to crash land in Nova Scotia. Laila and I agree that Markham’s life is so exciting it’s crying out for a movie version. In the meantime, I’d like to read some more about her circle – Denys Finch Hatton; and Baron von Blixen and his wife Karen (aka Danish writer Isak Dinesen, famous for Out of Africa). In my Circling the Sun review for BookTrib, I wrote that “Markham was the kind of real-life action adventure heroine you expect to find in Indiana Jones movies,” and that sense was only confirmed by her own account.

Favorite passages:

“to fly in unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are lights and life and a well-marked airport is something more than just lonely. It is at times unreal to the point where the existence of other people seems not even a reasonable possibility. The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite. The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star—if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.”

“I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know—that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”

My rating:

 

 

So how did I do on my first-ever #20BooksofSummer challenge? In that I read and reviewed (more than) 20 books by women that I owned in print, it was a smashing success. However, I only read 7 of the books I’d intended to, substituting in the rest from my review pile, books I owned in America, and others that grabbed my attention more than those I’d picked out in early June. Looks like I’m not great at sticking with the specific reading plans I set!

At any rate, as bonuses, here are the additional books by women that I read in print from my own shelves over the summer, not counting ones already reviewed on the blog (in chronological order, with ratings and links to any Goodreads reviews):

  • Blue Horses, Mary Oliver 
  • The Egg and I, Betty Macdonald 
  • Eye of the Shoal: A Fish-watcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything, Helen Scales 
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell 
  • Talk before Sleep, Elizabeth Berg 
  • The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon [blog tour review coming on Monday] 
  • The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron 
  • Gross Anatomy: My Curious Relationship with the Female Body (The Top Half and the Bottom Half), Mara Altman [Glamour UK review coming soon] 
  • Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop 
  • Writers & Company, Eleanor Wachtel 
  • Help Me!: One woman’s quest to find out if self-help really can change her life, Marianne Power 
  • Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart, Nell Stevens 

I’d call that a result!

What have been the best books of the summer? Of the final 20, The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer was the winner, followed closely by The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, and West With the Night by Beryl Markham. There were no real duds. I’m still very interested in all but one of the books I chose back in June, so I’ll see how many of the rest I can fit into this autumn and winter’s reading.

 

How was your summer of reading? Did you meet any goals you set?

Three Reads for Women in Translation Month 2018

An offer of the latest Latin American import from Charco Press prompted me to scour my shelves and see what other books I might add for #WITMonth. I dug out two novella-length books I’d bought secondhand over the past year to make it a trio. My rating for all:

 

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

[Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein]

Leda is a 47-year-old teacher on holiday in southern Italy. She mostly sits on the beach, minding her own business, but still gets drawn into the minor daily dramas of a large Neapolitan family. One woman is pregnant; another has a small child named Elena who is devastated at losing her doll. Their mother–daughter dynamic takes Leda back to the time when she abandoned her own daughters and didn’t see them for three years. She temporarily found it impossible to reconcile motherhood with her career and her general sense of herself. Leda sees herself as part of a “chain of mute or angry women” – “I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother.”

I was definitely on board for the memories of motherly guilt. Where Ferrante lost me was when Leda steals the doll the child left behind and takes it up to her room to care for it – washing it, buying it new clothes, etc. Every time she sets out to give the doll back or at least leave it somewhere it will be found, she finds another excuse to put it off. Leda herself is unsure why she’s fixated on the doll; “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” she says early on.

Most likely the doll could be interpreted as a symbol of Leda’s desire to be part of a functional family, to get a second chance at perfection with her daughters. But the book was a little too strange for me, and I never really engaged with the Neapolitan characters. After this and a skim of My Brilliant Friend a couple years back, I doubt I’ll pick up anything else by Ferrante. The themes and style of this one reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.

 

Favorite passage:

“Life can have an ironic geometry. Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me. I didn’t think the city could contain life forms different from those I had known as a child, violent or sensually lazy, tinged with sentimental vulgarity or obtusely fortified in defense of their own wretched degradation. I didn’t even look for them, those forms, in the past or in a possible future. I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”

 

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

[Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe]

Fish Soup contains two novellas (one of them, Sexual Education, was previously unpublished) separated by a set of seven short stories, and marks the first time the Colombian author Margarita García Robayo’s work has appeared in English. I especially liked the title story, in which a widower starts to smell his dead wife Helena’s fish soup in the bar that he owns and goes to investigate, all the while mixing up his dreams and memories with what’s really happening.

My other favorite piece was the opening novella, Waiting for a Hurricane, in which the narrator longs for escape from her seaside home, wanting nothing more than to be a “foreigner.” She starts a law degree but gives it up to become an air hostess, making flights to and from Miami and elsewhere. From her childhood onward, Gustavo has been a major presence in her life, teaching her to prepare fish and telling her stories, but there’s an uncomfortable element to their relationship that’s never really addressed. The mixture of quirky happenings and darker material reminded me of Swallowing Mercury, while the cancer theme of the story “Like a Pariah” recalls Hair Everywhere.

One of my frequent issues with short fiction is a preponderance of inconclusive endings that make you wonder what the point could be. I experienced that a few times with this collection, especially at the close of Waiting for a Hurricane. Judging by the title, though, the main message I drew from the novella is that you can’t just go around waiting for momentous things to happen to you, for your ‘real’ life to start; you have to recognize that this is life, here and now: in storytelling, in spicy stews, in everyday moments with friends and family.

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

 

Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran

[Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley]

In 1994 Xinran, a Chinese journalist who later moved to London, met a woman whose story captured her imagination. Shu Wen received word that her husband, Kejun, had died just months into their marriage. A doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, he’d been sent into Tibet in the 1960s after its ‘liberation’. With no details or body to confirm his demise, though, Wen refused to believe Kejun was gone, and traveled to Tibet to find him. She stayed there for over 30 years – more than half her life – living with a Tibetan family and adjusting to their culture and rituals as she sought word of her husband. The gender roles surprised her: men did the sewing and women had multiple husbands. It was a land of lamas and temples; “the whole of Tibet was one great monastery,” she felt.

Wen does eventually learn the truth of what happened to her husband (whew!), and after decades of living as a superstitious Buddhist in primitive conditions has to readjust to life in a new China, having completely missed the Cultural Revolution. She clings to words of wisdom from a military official: “Whatever happens, remember one thing: just staying alive is a victory” and “Writing can be a source of strength.” He then gave her a diary that she filled with letters to Kejun over the years.

It’s a pleasant, short book made up of layers of tales: the legends and history lessons Wen hears from Tibetans; what she conveys to Xinran during their two intense days together; and the resulting narrative Xinran spent nearly a decade imagining herself into. Kejun’s fate is worth waiting around to hear about (but if you know what the title refers to you might consider it a spoiler), though this is something of a thin story overall. I’ve seen it referred to as a novel, though I consider it more of a stylized biography.

 

Did you do any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?