Tag Archives: AIDS

Thinking about Dead Bodies with John Troyer (Hay Festival)

My second of three digital Hay Festival talks this year was by John Troyer, director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Troyer is from Wisconsin (where he was speaking from, having been trapped there during a visit to his parents) and grew up with a father who owned a funeral home. This meant that he was aware of death from a young age: One of his earliest memories is of touching the hand of a dead woman when he went to visit his father at work.

That’s not the only personal experience that went into his new book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, which I’m now keen to read. In 2018 his younger sister, Julie, died of brain cancer at age 43, so her illness and death became a late addition to the preface and also fed into a series of prose poems interspersed between the narrative chapters. She lived in Italy and her doctors failed to tell her that she was dying – that job fell to Troyer. (Unfortunately, this seems to be a persistent problem in Italy. In Dottoressa, her memoir of being an American doctor in Rome, which I read for a TLS review, Susan Levenstein writes of a paternalistic attitude among medical professionals: they treat their patients as children and might not even tell them about a cancer diagnosis; they just inform their family.)

Troyer discussed key moments that changed how we treat corpses. For instance, during the American Civil War there was a huge market for the new embalming technology; it was a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers so they could be returned home for funerals. Frauds also arose, however, and those taken in might find their loved one’s body arrived in a state of advanced decay. At around the same time, early photography captured corpses looking serene and sleeping. We might still take such photos, but we don’t tend to display them any more.

In the 1970s the “happy death” movement advocated for things like “natural death” and “death with dignity.” This piggybacked on the environmental and women’s movements and envisioned death as a taboo that had to be overcome. In recent decades a “necro-economy” based on the global trafficking of body parts (not organs for regulated transplant, Troyer clarified, but other tissue types) has appeared. While whole bodies may be worth just £2,000, “disarticulated” ones divided into their parts can net more like £100,000. Donating one’s body to science is, of course, a noble decision. Many people are also happy to donate their organs, though there remains a particular wariness about donating the eyes.

Troyer and Florence on my screen.

One section of Troyer’s book has become “uncannily resonant” in recent days, he noted. This is Chapter 3, on the AIDS corpse, an object of stigma. The biggest changes to death in the time of COVID-19 have been that family members are not able to be with a dying person in the ICU and that funerals cannot proceed as normal. In a viral pandemic, countries are producing a huge number of corpses that they aren’t prepared to deal with. (Indeed, the Washington, D.C. area is so overwhelmed with dead bodies that ice skating rinks have been requisitioned as makeshift morgues. The suburban Maryland rink I visited as a child is one such. Grim.)

Troyer spoke of the need for an everyday-ness to the discussion of death: talking with one’s next of kin, and encountering death in the course of a traditional education – he finds that even his final-year university students, studying in a related field, are very new to talking about death. A good way in that he recommends is simply to ask your loved ones what music they want played at their funerals, and the conversation can go from there.

We may not be able to commemorate the dead as we would like to at this time, but Troyer reminded the audience that funerals are for the living, whereas “the dead are okay with it – they know we’re doing our best.” The event was sensitively chaired by Peter Florence, the co-founder and director of Hay Festival (also responsible for last year’s controversial Booker Prize tie); the fact that Troyer got emotional talking about his sister only gave it more relevance and impact.

 

I’ve read an abnormally large number of books about death, especially in the five years since my brother-in-law died of brain cancer (one reason why Troyer’s talk was so meaningful for me). Most recently, I read Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000) by Thomas Lynch, a set of essays by the Irish-American undertaker and poet from Michigan. I saw him speak at Greenbelt Festival in 2012 and have read four of his books since then. His unusual dual career lends lyrical beauty to his writing about death. However, this collection was not memorable for me in comparison to his 1997 book The Undertaking, and I’d already encountered a shortened version of “Wombs” in the Wellcome Collection anthology Beneath the Skin. But this passage from “The Way We Are” stood out:

After years and years of directing funerals, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing [the dead body] is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it, better than fiction or fantasy. When someone dies it is not them we fear seeing, it is them dead. It is the death. We fear that seeing will be believing. We fear not seeing too. We search the wreckage and the ruins, the battlefields and ocean floors. We must find our dead to let the loss be real.

 

Just for a bit of morbid fun, I decided to draw up my top 10 nonfiction books about death, dying and the dead. Many of these are personal accounts of facing death or losing a loved one. In contrast to the bereavement and cancer memoirs, the books by Doughty and Gawande are more like cultural studies, and Montross’s is about working with corpses. If you need a laugh, the Bechdel (a graphic memoir) and Doughty are best for black comedy.

Three May Releases: Climate Change, a Son’s Elegy, and Sexual Fluidity

I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.

 

When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray

Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.

She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.

Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.

Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)

Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.

Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.

My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.

 

Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle

“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”

A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.

I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”

In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.

The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.

My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.

 

The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.

By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)

And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.

Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.

I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).

I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.

There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.

I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Best Fiction & Poetry of 2018

Below I’ve chosen my top 12 fiction releases from 2018 (eight of them happen to be by women!). Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as with my nonfiction selections, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I’ve also highlighted my three favorites from the year’s poetry releases.

 

  1. Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: From the Iraq War protests to the Occupy movement in New York City, we follow antiheroine Gael Foess as she tries to get her brother’s art recognized. This debut novel is a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life.

 

  1. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. The characters and atmosphere are top-notch; this is an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps.

 

  1. The Only Story by Julian Barnes: It may be a familiar story – a May–December romance that fizzles out – but, as Paul believes, we only really get one love story, the defining story of our lives. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.

 

  1. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die; in the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype.

 

  1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: 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. This would make a great book club pick: I ached for all the main characters in their impossible situation; there’s a lot to probe about their personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration and letters.

 

  1. The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is an Italian teacher; as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he’d follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts, but along the way something went wrong. This is a rewarding novel about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.

 

  1. The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon: A sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word.

 

  1. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past and finds that they are linked by distrust and displacement. There’s so much going on that it feels like it encompasses all of human life; it’s by no means a subtle book, but it’s an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.

 

  1. Southernmost by Silas House: In House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey with Asher Sharp: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace in this beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.

 

  1. Little by Edward Carey: This is a deliciously macabre, Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud, who started life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761. From a former monkey house to the Versailles palace and back, Marie must tread carefully as the French Revolution advances and a desire for wax heads is replaced by that for decapitated ones.

 

  1. Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children.

 

  1. Florida by Lauren Groff: There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout these 11 short stories, with violent storms reminding the characters of an uncaring universe, falling-apart relationships, and the threat of environmental catastrophe. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant; any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece. (I never would have predicted that a short story collection would be my favorite fiction read of the year!)

 

My 2018 fiction books of the year (the ones I own in print, anyway).

Poetry selections:

 

  1. Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan: These poem-essays give fragmentary images of city life and question the notion of progress and what meaning a life leaves behind. “The Sandpit after Rain” stylishly but grimly juxtaposes her father’s death and her son’s birth.

 

  1. Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016 by Rafael Campo: Superb, poignant poetry about illness and the physician’s duty. A good bit of this was composed in response to the AIDS crisis; it’s remarkable how Campo wrings beauty out of clinical terminology and tragic situations.

 

  1. The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain: St. Germain’s seventh collection is in memory of her son Gray, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, aged 30. She turns her family history of alcohol and drug use into a touchpoint and affirms life’s sensual pleasures – everything from the smell of brand-new cowboy boots to luscious fruits.

 

What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?

 

Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up (both fiction and nonfiction).

Recent Writing for BookBrowse, Shiny New Books and the TLS

Here are excerpts from (and links to, where available) some of my recent reviews for other places. A few of these books will undoubtedly be showing up on my end-of-year best lists in a couple weeks’ time.

 

BookBrowse

I was pleased to have three of the books I reviewed show up on BookBrowse’s list of the top 20 books of the year, as voted for by the site’s readers. What’s more, Educated was voted their top nonfiction book of the year and Where the Crawdads Sing (below) their #1 debut novel. (The third on the list was Unsheltered.)

 

Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki: Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are strong at the broken places, and Allison Pataki found that to be true when her husband, David Levy, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident in Chicago, had a near-fatal stroke at age 30. On June 9, 2015, Dave and five-months-pregnant Allison were on a flight from Chicago to Hawaii for their babymoon, planning to stop in Seattle to visit Dave’s brothers. But they never made it there. On the plane Dave told her he couldn’t see out of his right eye.The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota and Dave was rushed to a hospital for testing. Doctors found he had suffered a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, even though he’d had no risk factors and this stroke type was virtually unknown in patients of his age. Pataki goes back and forth between the details of this health crisis and her past with Dave. Hers is a relatable story of surviving the worst life can throw at you and finding the beauty in it. 

 

Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Khakpour can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel unwell and like she wanted to escape. “I had no idea what normal was. I never felt good,” she writes in her bracing memoir. Related to this sense of not being at home in her body was the feeling of not having a place where she fit in. Throughout Sick, she gives excellent descriptions of physical and mental symptoms. Her story is a powerful one of being mired in sickness and not getting the necessary help from medical professionals. Lyme disease has cost her $140,000 so far, and a lack of money and health insurance likely delayed her diagnosis by years. There is, unfortunately, some inherent repetition in a book of this nature. At times it feels like an endless cycle of doctors, appointments, and treatment strategies. However, the overall arc of struggling with one’s body and coming to terms with limitations will resonate widely. 

 

Southernmost by Silas House: In Silas House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey in Southernmost: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace. Reconciliation is a major theme, but so is facing up to the consequences of poor decisions. I found the plotting decisions rewarding but also realistic. The pattern of a narrow religious worldview ebbing away to no faith at all and eventually surging back as a broader and more universal spirituality truly resonates. I loved House’s characters and setups, as well as his gentle evocation of the South. His striking metaphors draw on the natural world, like “She had the coloring of a whip-poor-will” and “The sky is the pink of grapefruit meat.” It’s a beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us. 

 

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past, revealing how they are linked by distrust and displacement. The book’s themes and structure emphasize similarities between two time periods that might initially appear very different. Chapters alternate between the story lines, and the last words of one chapter form the title of the next. It’s a clever and elegant connecting strategy, as is the habit of using variations on the title word as frequently as possible – something Jonathan Franzen also does in his novels. (I counted 22 instances of “shelter” and its variants in the text; how many can you spot?) Kingsolver can be heavy-handed with her messages about science, American politics and healthcare, etc. All the same, Unsheltered is a rich, rewarding novel and an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing. 

 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: It’s easy to see why so many have taken this debut novel into their hearts: it’s a gripping mystery but also a tender coming-of-age story about one woman’s desperately lonely upbringing and her rocky route to finding love and a vocation. Not only that, but its North Carolina marsh setting is described in lyrical language that evinces Delia Owens’s background in nature writing, tempered with folksy Southern dialect. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things. In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her situation makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. Crawdads is a real treat. 

 

 

Shiny New Books

 

Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: When Myers moved to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire from London over a decade ago, he approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog (“Walking is writing with your feet”) and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. Interludes transcribe his field notes, which are stunning impromptu poems. I came away from this feeling that Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. “Writing is a form of alchemy,” he declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under his spell here. 

 

Nine Pints by Rose George: Nine Pints dives deep into the science and cultural history of blood. George’s journalistic tenacity keeps her pushing through the statistics to find the human stories that animate the book. In the first chapter we track the journey of a pint of blood that she donates in her hometown of Leeds. I was particularly interested, if morbidly so, in the chapter on leeches and bloodletting. Other sections journey further afield, chiefly to South Africa and India, to explore AIDS and menstruation taboos. The style can be choppy and repetitive, given to short sentences and identical paragraph openers, and there are a couple of places where the nine-chapter structure shows its weaknesses. While Nine Pints is quite uneven, it does convey a lot of important information about the past, present and future of our relationship to blood. 

 

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more. McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. Here he pulls back the curtain on the everyday details of his work life: everything from his footwear (white Crocs that soon become stained with blood and other fluids) to his musical choices (pop for the early phases; classical for the more challenging microsurgery stage). Like neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, he describes the awe of the first incision – “an almost overwhelming sense of entering into a sanctuary.” There’s a vicarious thrill to being let into this insider zone, and the book’s prose is perfectly clear and conversational, with unexpectedly apt metaphors such as “Sometimes the blood vessels can be of such poor quality that it is like trying to sew together two damp cornflakes.” This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve. 

 

On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén: Lindén left city life behind to take on his parents’ rural collective in southeast Sweden. This documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. Published diaries can devolve into tedium, but the brevity and selectiveness of this one prevent its accounts of everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling, as the shepherd practices being present with these “quiet and unpretentious and stoical” creatures. The attention paid to slaughtering and sustainability issues – especially as the business starts scaling up and streamlining activities – lends the book a wider significance. It is thus more realistic and less twee than its stocking-stuffer dimensions and jolly title font seem to suggest. 

Novellas in November, Batch #2: 2 Fiction, 2 Nonfiction

Fiction about caregiving for AIDS patients and Victorian ghosts; nonfiction about American race relations and British wildlife: novellas have it all! Here are my latest four reads. All were .

Fiction:

 

The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown (1994)

[163 pages]

This is rather like a set of linked short stories, narrated by a home care aide who bathes and feeds those dying of AIDS. The same patients appear in multiple chapters titled “The Gift of…” (Sweat, Tears, Hunger, etc.) – Rick, Ed, Carlos, and Marty, with brief appearances from Mike and Keith. But for me the most poignant story was that of Connie Lindstrom, an old woman who got a dodgy blood transfusion after her mastectomy; the extra irony to her situation is that her son Joe is gay, and feels guilty because he thinks he should have been the one to get sick. Several characters move in and out of hospice care, and one building is so known for its AIDS victims that a savant resident greets the narrator with a roll call of its dead and dying. Brown herself had been a home-care worker, and she delivers these achingly sad vignettes in plain language that keeps the book from ever turning maudlin.

A favorite passage:

“I’d thought about the sores all week long, about how they looked and how it frightened me. But I’d worked myself up to acting like it didn’t bother me. … I also kept telling myself that even if I wasn’t feeling or thinking the right things, at least he was getting fed, at least he was getting his sheets changed, at least his kitchen was getting cleaned, at least his body was getting salve.”

 


(I found my copy over the summer in a Little Free Library in my mother’s new town in the States and read it in one day, on my travel to and from London for the Barbara Kingsolver event. Rebecca Brown is a repeat presence on my novellas list: Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary was in my 2016 roster.)

 

Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie (2016)

[130 pages]

Left over from my R.I.P. reading plans. This was nearly a one-sitting read for me: I read 94 pages in one go, though that may be because I was trapped under the cat. The first thing I noted was that the setup and dual timeframe are exactly the same as in Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered: we switch between the same place in 2016 and 1871. In this case it’s Wakewater House, a residential development by the Thames that incorporates the site of a dilapidated Victorian hydrotherapy center. After her partner cheats on her, Kirsten moves into Wakewater, where she’s alone apart from one neighbor, Manon, a hoarder who’s researching Anatomical Venuses – often modeled on prostitutes who drowned themselves in the river. In the historical strand, we see Wakewater through the eyes of Evelyn Byrne, who rescues street prostitutes and, after a disastrously ended relationship of her own, has arrived to take the Water Cure.

The literal and metaphorical connections between the two story lines are strong. Annabel described this novella as “watery,” and I would agree: pretty much every paragraph has a water word in it, whether it’s “river,” “sea,” “aquatic” or “immersion.” Both women see ghostly figures emerging from the water, and Manon’s interest in legends about water spirits and the motif of the drowned girl adds texture. Short chapters keep things ticking over, and I loved the spooky atmosphere.

A favorite line: “Sometimes old places like this retain a bit of the past, in the fabric of the building, and occasionally, they seep.”


(Purchased from Salt Publishing during their #JustOneBook fundraising campaign in late May.)

 

 

Nonfiction:

 

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)

[89 pages]

This was written yesterday, right? Actually, it was 55 years ago, but apart from the use of the word “Negro” you might have fooled me. Baldwin’s writing is still completely relevant, and eminently quotable. I can’t believe I hadn’t read him until now. This hard-hitting little book is composed of two essays that first appeared elsewhere. The first, “My Dungeon Shook,” a very short piece from the Madison, Wisconsin Progressive, is a letter addressed to his nephew and namesake on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. No doubt it directly inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

“Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” is a 66-page essay that first appeared in the New Yorker. It tells of a crisis of faith that hit Baldwin when he was a teenager. Whereas he used to be a fervent young preacher in his church, he started to question to what extent Christianity of all stripes was upholding white privilege and black subjugation. Unless religion was making things better, he decided he wanted no part of it. Curiosity about the Nation of Islam led to Baldwin meeting Elijah Muhammad for dinner at his home in Chicago. I marked out so many passages from this essay. Here are a few that stood out most:

“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

“When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed.”

 

How to See Nature by Paul Evans (2018)

[164 pages]

How to See Nature (1940), a quaint and perhaps slightly patronizing book by Shropshire naturalist and photographer Frances Pitt, was intended to help city evacuees cope with life in the countryside. Recently Pitt’s publisher, Batsford, commissioned Shropshire naturalist Paul Evans to revisit the topic. The result is a simply lovely volume (with a cover illustration by Angela Harding and black-and-white interior drawings by Evans’s partner, Maria Nunzia) that reflects on the range of modern relationships with nature and revels in the wealth of wildlife and semi-wild places we still have in Britain.

He starts with his own garden, where he encounters hedgehogs and marmalade hoverflies. Other chapters consider night creatures like bats; weeds and what they have to offer; and the wildlife of rivers, common land, moors and woods. I particularly enjoyed a section on reintroduced species such as beavers and red kites. The book closes with an A–Z bestiary of British wildlife, from adders to zooplankton.

Throughout, Evans treats issues like tree blight, climate change and species persecution with a light touch. Although it’s clear he’s aware of the diminished state of nature and quietly irate at how we are all responsible for pollution and invasive species, he writes lovingly and with poetic grace. I would not hesitate to recommend this to fans of contemporary nature writing.

Favorite lines:

“the orb-weavers wait: sexual cannibals adorned in the extra-terrestrial glow of their pearl diadems, suspended in ethereal scaffolds woven from hundreds of glands controlled by their own sovereign will and unique metabolism”

“The last ‘woo-oooo’ of a tawny owl meets the first clockwork hiccup of a pheasant, then bird by bird in the scanty light, the songs begin”

(Paul Evans is a repeat presence on my novellas list: Herbaceous was in my 2017 roster.)

 


How to See Nature was published by Batsford on November 6th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

 

 

Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

Polishing off the Wellcome Prize Shortlist: How to Survive a Plague

Spanning from the summer of 1981, when the New York Times first broke the story about a rare cancer observed in homosexuals, to 1996, when protease inhibitors came onto the market and offered HIV sufferers a new lease on life, How to Survive a Plague is a comprehensive history of the AIDS crisis. Especially in its early chapters, it reads like a fascinating medical mystery – though we already know the answers, the book skillfully captures the ignorance and terror that reigned for so many years as people sought to understand what Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID, the original name for AIDS) was and how it was transmitted.

As a journalist and a gay man, David France was right in the thick of the crisis when he moved to Manhattan in 1981. He lost friends and lovers to AIDS, and had his own health scares, too – once, on assignment in war-torn Central America, he developed what he thought was a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion but turned out to be a sign of amoebic infection.

Throughout the 1980s the number of HIV cases roughly doubled each year; media coverage was intense but often alarmist. Undertakers refused to deal with AIDS victims, and Jerry Falwell and his ilk spoke of a gay conspiracy taking over America. Far too slowly, research advanced to cope with the crisis. France gives details of the medical trials and presidential commissions that kept AIDS at the forefront of the national conscience, generally thanks to patient advocacy groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and PWA (People with AIDS – more proactive terminology than victims or patients).

The book reminds me most of Sheri Fink’s Five Days in Memorial, another social history with a vast scope and a large cast of characters; here there are about 25 doctors, researchers and activists, many of them based in New York City, who keep recurring. For instance, there’s Joe Sonnabend, an infectious diseases expert who specialized in treating gay men for venereal diseases; Larry Kramer, who wrote an angry novel about fellow homosexuals yet tried to lead the response; and Richard Berkowitz, a former sex worker who co-wrote How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, a safe sex guide that encouraged a surge in condom use.

I rather underestimated the reading load the Wellcome shortlist would create for me; I ended up getting bogged down in this 500+-page book’s level of detail and only succeeded in skimming it. I think that for someone without a personal stake in the story of AIDS, watching the 2012 documentary film of the same title that spawned the book would be an easier way to absorb copious information and keep track of all the individuals and organizations involved.

Nonetheless, I can certainly affirm the importance of a landmark book like this one. When I surveyed critical opinion on it for Bookmarks magazine, I noticed many comparisons to Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, but while that book was written in medias res and deliberately vilified a French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaëtan Dugas who was linked with multiple AIDS cases in North America, How to Survive a Plague benefits from two decades of hindsight and reflects a mixture of journalistic objectivity and personal grief.

It’s sobering to remember the scale of the AIDS epidemic: 100,000 Americans had died of it by 1991. As one HIV-positive ACT UP activist cried out to Bill Clinton, then a Democratic candidate, at a campaign event, “Bill, we’re dying of neglect!” France’s book really brings home how traumatic these years were for a whole country, but especially for homosexuals. He describes the relief of knowing that effective medical treatment was finally in the pipeline, but also the lingering effects of shame, bitterness, and fear.

Nobody left those years uncorrupted by what they’d witnessed, not only the mass deaths—100,000 lost in New York City alone, snatched from tightly drawn social circles—but also the foul truths that a microscopic virus had revealed about American culture: politicians who welcomed the plague as proof of God’s will, doctors who refused the victims medical care, clergymen and often even parents themselves who withheld all but a shiver of grief. Such betrayal would be impossible to forget in the subsequent years.

My rating:


My gut feeling: France has written a definitive history of the AIDS crisis in the United States. It’s a cautionary tale that must not be forgotten. While not among my personal favorites from the shortlist, it would be a worthy winner.

More reviews:

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books


Stay tuned for our shadow panel winner, which I will announce here tomorrow morning!

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.

Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.

lonely cityWhereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.

Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)

Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.

In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).

A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.

The American cover

The American cover

The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.

The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.

(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)

With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.

My rating: 4 star rating