We’re coming to the close of Literature in Translation week of Novellas in November. Cathy and I have both noted that novellas seem more common in other languages, with the work more likely to take on experimental forms. We wondered why this is – do foreign languages and cultures somehow lend themselves to concise storytelling that takes more risks? However, a commenter on a post of Cathy’s suggested that economic realities may have something to do with it: translating short works is faster and cheaper. In a recent blog post, Louise Walters, whose indie publishing imprint is preparing to release its shortest book yet (In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton, 22,000 words), confirms that production and shipping costs are lower for novellas, so she has the chance of recouping her investment.
I’ve gotten to five short translated works this month: three fiction and two nonfiction. (Or should that be four fiction and one nonfiction? With autofiction it’s hard to tell.)
Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (1971; 2019)
[Translated from the Danish by Michael Favala Goldman]
The final volume of the autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy, after Childhood and Youth. Ditlevsen recalls her upbringing in poverty and her early success as a poet. By the end of the second book, she’s engaged to a much older literary editor. A series of marriages and affairs follows: Viggo, Ebbe, Carl and Victor are the major names, with some others in between. She produces stories and poems as well as a daughter and a son, but also has two abortions. Carl performs one of these and gives her a Demerol shot; ever afterwards, she takes advantage of his obsession with her chronic ear infection to beg for painkiller shots. “Then time ceases to be relevant. An hour could be a year, and a year could be an hour. It all depends on how much is in the syringe.” Addiction interferes with her work and threatens her relationships, but it’s an impulse that never leaves her even when she swaps the harder stuff for alcohol.
I only skimmed this one because from the other volumes I knew how flat and detached the prose is, even when describing desperate circumstances. I can admire this kind of writing – the present-tense scenes, the lack of speech marks, the abrupt jumps between time periods and emotional states, all coldly expressed – but I’m not sure I’ll ever love it. Of the three books, I liked Childhood the best for its universal observations.
La Symphonie Pastorale by André Gide (1919; 1931)
[Translated from the French by Dorothy Bussy]
“Love is blindness / I don’t want to see” (U2)
I had a secondhand French copy when I was in high school, always assuming I’d get to a point of fluency where I could read it in its original language. It hung around for years unread and was a victim of the final cull before my parents sold their house. Oh well! There’s always another chance with books. In this case, a copy of this plus another Gide novella turned up at the free bookshop early this year. A country pastor takes Gertrude, the blind 15-year-old niece of a deceased parishioner, into his household and, over the next two years, oversees her education as she learns Braille and plays the organ at the church. He dissuades his son Jacques from falling in love with her, but realizes that he’s been lying to himself about his own motivations. This reminded me of Ethan Frome as well as of other French classics I’ve read (Madame Bovary and Thérèse Raquin). Melodramatic, maybe, but I loved the religious and medical themes (deaf-blind Laura Bridgman gets a mention; when the preacher and Gertrude attend the title symphony, he encourages her synesthetic thinking).
Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours by Erwin Mortier (2011; 2015)
[Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent]
In fragmentary vignettes, some as short as a few lines, Belgian author Mortier chronicles his mother’s Alzheimer’s, which he describes as a “twilight zone between life and death.” His father tries to take care of her at home for as long as possible, but it’s painful for the family to see her walking back and forth between rooms, with no idea of what she’s looking for, and occasionally bursting into tears for no reason. Most distressing for Mortier is her loss of language. As if to compensate, he captures her past and present in elaborate metaphors: “Language has packed its bags and jumped over the railing of the capsizing ship, but there is also another silence … I can no longer hear the music of her soul”. He wishes he could know whether she feels hers is still a life worth living. There are many beautifully meditative passages, some of them laid out almost like poetry, but not much in the way of traditional narrative; it’s a book for reading piecemeal, when you have the fortitude.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (1954; 1955)
[Translated from the French by Irene Ash]
Like The Go-Between and Atonement, this is overlaid with regret about childhood caprice that has unforeseen consequences. That Sagan, like her protagonist, was only a teenager when she wrote it only makes this 98-page story the more impressive. Although her widower father has always enjoyed discreet love affairs, seventeen-year-old Cécile has basked in his undivided attention until, during a holiday on the Riviera, he announces his decision to remarry a friend of her late mother. Over the course of one summer spent discovering the pleasures of the flesh with her boyfriend, Cyril, Cécile also schemes to keep her father to herself. Dripping with sometimes uncomfortable sensuality, this was a sharp and delicious read.
The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard (2017; 2018)
[Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti]
February 1933: 24 German captains of industry meet with Hitler to consider the advantages of a Nazi government. I loved the pomp of the opening chapter: “Through doors obsequiously held open, they stepped from their huge black sedans and paraded in single file … they doffed twenty-four felt hats and uncovered twenty-four bald pates or crowns of white hair.” As the invasion of Austria draws nearer, Vuillard recreates pivotal scenes featuring figures who will one day commit suicide or stand trial for war crimes. Reminiscent in tone and contents of HHhH, The Tobacconist, and the film Downfall, this starts off promisingly and ends with clear relevance to the present moment (“a mysterious respect for lies. Political manoeuvring tramples facts”) and a brilliant final paragraph, but in between was dull. You’d have to have more interest in history than I do to love this Prix Goncourt winner.
Publishers that specialize in novellas in translation:
Charco Press – I’ve reviewed:
The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz
Peirene Press – I’ve reviewed:
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst
A few more favorite novellas in translation:
The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Next week, we’re closing out Novellas in November with a focus on short classics. I’ll introduce the week’s theme with some of my favorite examples on Monday.
Any theories as to why so many novellas are from other languages?
What are some of your favorites?
I’m a #6Degrees regular now: this is my fifth time participating. This month (see Kate’s introductory post) we start with Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018). I loved Conversations with Friends but wasn’t so enamored with Rooney’s second novel (see my review), so I haven’t been tempted to watch the television adaptation; I don’t have a TV anyway.
#1 Picking out one of the words from the book title, and echoing the question that Rooney’s characters seem to be asking themselves, I’ll hop over to a memoir I enjoyed a lot in late 2011, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Adopted into a strict religious household, Winterson had to hide her sexuality. Here you get the full story behind her autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
#2 Adoption is my link to The Leavers by Lisa Ko. When he’s abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant in the USA, Daniel is adopted by a pair of white professors. This is an achingly beautiful story of searching for a mother and a sense of belonging. It won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
#3 Barbara Kingsolver created and funds the biennial Bellwether Prize for unpublished fiction that addresses issues of social justice. I have vague ambitions to read as many Bellwether and Women’s Prize winners as I can. While it’s not one of my favorites by Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2009) won her the (then) Orange Prize. A historical novel, it’s largely set in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
#4 Frida Kahlo is my link to Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, autobiographical essays about the female body in pain. Kahlo is one of Gleeson’s gurus in that she turned her chronic pain and pregnancy loss into art – “making wounds the source of inspiration.” Constellations was our Not the Wellcome Prize winner during this hiatus year for the official prize.
#5 The first winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, in 2009, was Keeper by Andrea Gillies, a memoir of her mother-in-law Nancy’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. I also intend to read as many WBP winners and nominees as possible, so I recently ordered a secondhand copy of this and read the introduction before setting it aside for another time. Already I can tell it will be an engaging if harrowing book; Gillies pulls no punches in her depiction of the misery of the years when Nancy lived with her family and then in an institution.
[#5.5 Another book called Keeper, this one by Jessica Moor, provides my cheaty half-step. I found this debut novel to be a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.]
#6 Violence against women is also the theme of The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, my novel of 2020 so far. While it ranges across the centuries, it always sticks close to the title location, an uninhabited island off the east coast of Scotland. It cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that is appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. This is not a puzzle book where everything fits together. Instead, it is a haunting echo chamber where elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. A must-read, especially for fans of Claire Fuller, Sarah Moss and Lucy Wood. (See my full Shiny New Books review.)
I’ve featured only books by women this month, and there have been quite a number of prize winners in here, too.
Join us for Six Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
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?
I’m averaging four new releases a month: a nicely manageable number. In April I read a memoir about a mother’s dementia, a bizarre little novel about a stuffed aardvark linking two centuries, a history of medicine in graphic novel form, and a sommelier’s memoir.
My top recommendation for the month is:
What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang
Maya Lang’s novel The Sixteenth of June* was one of my top three novels of 2014, so I was eager to read her next book, a forthright memoir of finding herself in the uncomfortable middle (the “sandwich generation”) of three generations of a female family line. Her parents had traveled from India to the USA for her mother’s medical training and ended up staying on permanently after she became a psychiatrist. Lang had always thought of her mother as a superwoman who managed a career alongside parenthood, never asked for help, and reinvented herself through a divorce and a career change.
When Lang gave birth to her own daughter, Zoe, this model of self-sufficiency mocked her when she had postpartum depression and needed to hire a baby nurse. It was in her daughter’s early days, just when she needed her mother’s support the most, that her mother started being unreliable: fearful and forgetful. Gradually it became clear that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lang cared for her mother at home for a year before making the difficult decision to see her settled into a nearby nursing home.
Like Elizabeth Hay’s All Things Consoled, this is an engaging, bittersweet account of obligation, choices and the secrets that sometimes come out when a parent enters a mental decline. I especially liked how Lang frames her experiences around an Indian folktale of a woman who enters a rising river, her child in her arms. She must decide between saving her child or herself. Her mother first told this story soon after Zoe’s birth to acknowledge life’s ambiguity: “Until we are in the river, up to our shoulders—until we are in that position ourselves, we cannot say what the woman will do. We must not judge. That is the lesson of the story. Whatever a woman decides, it is not easy.” The book is a journey of learning not to judge her mother (or herself), of learning to love despite mistakes and personality changes.
*One for me to reread in mid-June!
Published by Dial Press on the 28th. I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
Full disclosure: Maya and I are Facebook friends.
Other April releases to look out for:
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
On a scoreboard of the most off-the-wall, zany and fun novels I’ve read, this one would be right up there with Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle and Alex Christofi’s Glass. The two story lines, one contemporary and one set in the 1870s, are linked by a taxidermied aardvark that makes its way from Namibia to the Washington, D.C. suburbs by way of Victorian England.
The aardvark was collected by naturalist Sir Richard Ostlet and stuffed by Titus Downing, his secret lover. Ostlet committed suicide in Africa, but his wife could still sense him walking up and down outside her London home. In the present day, Republican congressman Alexander Paine Wilson, who emulates Ronald Reagan in all things, gets a FedEx delivery of a taxidermied aardvark – an apparent parting gift from Greg Tampico before the latter committed suicide. To keep his gay affair from becoming public knowledge, Wilson decides it’s high time he found himself a trophy wife. But the damned aardvark keeps complicating things in unexpected ways.
A scene where a police officer stops Wilson for texting and driving and finds the stuffed aardvark in the back of his SUV had me laughing out loud (“Enter the aardvark, alight on its mount. Enter the aardvark, claw raised, head covered with a goddamned gourmet $22 dish towel that suddenly looks incredibly suspicious hanging over the head of an aardvark, like it’s an infidel”). History repeats itself amusingly and the aardvark is an entertaining prop, but Wilson is too obviously odious, and having his narrative in the second person doesn’t add anything. This is not a debut novel but reads like one: full of bright ideas, but falling a bit short in the execution.
Published by Doubleday on the 23rd. I won a proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Medicine: A Graphic History by Jean-Noël Fabiani
[Illustrated by Philippe Bercovici; translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
From prehistory to nanotechnology, this is a thorough yet breezy survey of what people have learned about the body and how to treat it. (In approach it reminded me most of another SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed last year, ABC of Typography.) Some specific topics are the discovery of blood circulation, the development of anesthesia, and the history of mental health treatment.
Fabiani, a professor as well as the head of cardiac surgery at Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris, focuses on the key moments when ideas became testable theories and when experiments gave groundbreaking results. While he provided the one-page introduction to each chapter and the expository writing at the head of each comic pane, I suspect it was illustrator Philippe Bercovici who added most of the content in the speech bubbles, including plenty of jokes (especially since Fabiani thanks Bercovici for bringing his talent and humor to the project).
This makes for a lighthearted book that contains enough detail so that you feel like you are still getting the full story. Unsurprisingly, I took the most interest in chapters entitled The Great Epidemics and A Few Modern Plagues. I would especially recommend this to teenagers with an interest in medicine.
Published by SelfMadeHero on the 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Wine Girl by Victoria James
In 2012, at age 21, Victoria James became America’s youngest certified sommelier. Still in her twenties, she has since worked in multiple Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City and became the only American female to win the Sud de France Sommelier Challenge. But behind all the competition wins, celebrity sightings, and international travel for wine festivals and conferences is a darker story.
This is a tell-all about a toxic restaurant culture of overworked employees and casual sexism. James regularly worked 80-hour weeks in addition to her wine school studies, and suffered multiple sexual assaults. In addition, sexual harassment was common – even something as seemingly harmless as the title epithet a dismissive diner launched at her when he ordered a $650 bottle of wine for his all-male table and then told her it was corked and had to be replaced. “Wine girl” was a slur against her for her age, her gender and her presumed lack of experience, even though by that point she had an encyclopedic knowledge of wine varieties and service.
That incident from the prologue was my favorite part of the book; unfortunately, nothing that came afterwards really lived up to it. The memoir goes deep into James’s dysfunctional upbringing (her parents’ bitter divorce, her mother’s depression, her father’s alcoholism and gambling, her own battle with addictions), which I found I had little interest in. It’s like Educated lite, but with a whiney tone: “I grew up in a household of manipulation and neglect, left to fend for myself.”
For those interested in reading about wine and restaurant culture, I’d recommend Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (one of my pairings here) instead.
A favorite line: “Like music, the wonders of art, food, and beverage can transcend all boundaries. … I wanted to capture that feeling, the exhilaration of familiarity, and bring people together through wine.”
Published by Fleet on the 16th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Two rather different books to start off #WITMonth: a brief (c. 70 pp.) account of a mother’s decline with dementia; and a haiku-inspired novel of the quest for life and death in disorienting modern Japan. Both are admirable but detached – a judgment I seem more likely to make about work in translation – so don’t earn my wholehearted recommendation. My rating for both:
I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux (1997; English translation, 1999)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
This is the second short, somewhat harrowing autobiographical work I’ve read by Ernaux this year (after Happening, her account of her abortion, in March). A collection of mostly present-tense fragments, it’s drawn from the journal she kept during her mother’s final years, 1983–6. “I Remain in Darkness” were the last words her mother wrote, in a letter to a friend (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” which more literally means “I have not left my night,” strikes me as cryptic and poetic, though maybe I’m missing a colloquialism). Slipping into Alzheimer’s, her mother spent these years in a long-term hospital geriatric ward. Ernaux could see her mother becoming like a child again:
This morning she got up and, in a timid voice, said: ‘I wet the bed. I couldn’t help it.’ The same words I would use when I was a child.
Now her room is on the third floor. A bunch of women circle us, addressing my mother with the familiar tu form: ‘You’re going to be in our group?’ They are like kids talking to the ‘new girl’ at school. When I take leave of her, she looks at me in panic and confusion: ‘You’re not leaving, are you?’
—and herself becoming like her mother: “It’s crystal-clear: she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me – the wrinkles on her legs, the creases in her neck”. Ernaux vacillates between guilt, fear and cruelty in how she approaches her mother. She tenderly shaves the older woman’s face every week when she visits, and buys her all manner of sweets. Food is one of her mother’s last remaining pleasures, though she often misses her mouth when she tries to eat the cakes her daughter brings.
Superficially, this is very similar to another book I’ve reviewed this year, Be With by Mike Barnes, a series of short letters written during his time as a caregiver to his mother, who also has Alzheimer’s. But where Barnes is reassuring and even humorous at times, Ernaux refuses to give any comfort, false or otherwise. This hospital is a bleak place that reeks of urine and is hiding excrement everywhere (really). A lazier reviewer than I generally try to be would brandish the word “unflinching.”
The entries from a few days after her mother’s death explain what the author is trying to do with her work, whether memoir or autofiction: “I am incapable of producing books that are not precisely that – an attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage … I’ll have to tell her story in order to ‘distance myself from it’.” That dual purpose, saving and distancing, makes her work honest yet unemotional, such that I have trouble warming to it.
This is easily read in a sitting. I may try again to get into Ernaux’s novel The Years, which, like the Poschmann (below), was on this past year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist.
I Remain in Darkness will be released on September 18th. With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (2017; English translation, 2018)
[Translated from the German by Jen Calleja]
(Though I read this mostly in July, I finished it on August 1st, so I’m including it in my WIT Month coverage. It’s the first of the author’s books to be made available in English.)
A man wakes up from a dream convinced that his wife is cheating on him, and sets off for Tokyo on a whim, where he embarks on a Bashō-inspired pilgrimage to the pine islands of Matsushima. This Gilbert Silvester, a beard historian, acquires an unlikely companion: a young man named Yosa, who’s looking for the best place to kill himself and takes Gilbert along to cliffs and forests famous for their suicide rates. Although there are still cherry blossoms and kabuki theatre, Gilbert soon learns that this isn’t Bashō’s Japan anymore.
From the haikus he composes and the letters he writes to Mathilda back home, we track his inward journey as it contrasts with the outward ones he undertakes. I enjoyed the surreal touches – Yosa says he once dated a woman who was actually a fox – and the Murakami setup (the wife’s adultery and the hair patterns are reminiscent of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).
Somehow, though, for me this is a book that succeeds more in its ideas (searching for the essence of a place but only finding the clichés; coniferous versus deciduous trees as a metaphor for what lasts in life versus what fades) than in its actual execution. It never all quite comes together, and the inconclusive ending makes you question how much of this has been a dream or a fantasy. It’s ambitious and intellectually impressive, but something about its dignified aloofness is hard to be enthusiastic about.
Do watch Lost in Translation, one of my favorite films, afterwards…
And a DNF: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The time has come to admit that I simply do not appreciate Ferrante’s work. I could only make it 25 pages into this one; I’ve read a different short novel of hers (The Lost Daughter), and skimmed another (My Brilliant Friend). While I enjoyed the narrator’s voice well enough, and loved the scene in which her errant husband finds broken glass in his dinner, I found that I had no interest in how this seemingly predictable story of the end of a marriage might play out.
Up next for Part II: The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada, on its way from Charco Press, and The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmarin Fenollera.
Are you doing any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?
At about this time of year I try to read a handful of books with “love” in the title. I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine for the #IMReadalong, and I have one more “love” title towards the end of this post, but it turns out that my focus this year has been more on the kinds of love that tend to get ignored around Valentine’s Day – familial love for one’s ageing parents and grandparents.
Be With: Letters to a Carer by Mike Barnes (2018)
Mike Barnes, a Toronto poet and novelist, has been a primary caregiver for his mother, Mary, in the nine years since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis disease. She grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and is now in her nineties; he’s in his sixties. A bipolar sufferer, Barnes has spent his own fair share of time in hospitals and on disability. He’s moved Mary between care homes four times as her condition has deteriorated. Though he laments her gradual loss of words and awareness of her family, he can still discern instances of her bravery and the beauty of life.
This book of fragments – memories and advice delivered via short letters – was written in between demanding caregiving tasks and is meant to be read in those same gaps. Dementia is one situation in which you should definitely throw money at a problem, Barnes counsels, to secure the best care you can, even round-the-clock nursing help. However, as the title suggests, nothing outweighs simply being there. Your presence, not chiefly to make decisions, but just to sit, listen and place a soothing hand on a forehead, is the greatest gift.
There are many excellent, pithy quotations in this book. Here are a few of my favorites:
“a retreat under fire”
“a passage of exquisite vulnerability”
By your loved one’s side is “Not where things are easy, or satisfactorily achieved, or achievable, or even necessarily pleasant. But where you ought to be, have to be, and are. It brings a peace.”
The goal is “Erring humanely”.
I can imagine this being an invaluable companion for caregivers, to be tucked into a pocket or purse and pulled out for a few moments of relief. On the theme of a parent’s dementia, I’d also recommend Paulette Bates Alden’s book of linked short stories, Unforgettable.
Out now from Myriad Editions. My thanks for the free copy for review.
The Smallest Things: On the enduring power of family: A memoir of tiny dramas by Nick Duerden (2019)
Journalist Nick Duerden always appreciated how his maternal grandparents, Nonna and Nonno, seemed so ordinary and unchanging. Every trip to see them in the Milan suburbs was, comfortingly, the same. He’d muddle along with his meager Italian, and they’d look after him in their usual clucking way. It was only as he reached middle age and realized that his grandparents were undeniably very old – his grandmother is 99 and in a care home at the time of writing – that he realized how lucky he was to still have them in his life and how unlikely it was that they’d be around for much longer.
Duerden compares his small immediate family with his Spanish wife’s large extended one, and his uptight paternal grandparents with the more effusive set. There are also some family secrets still to uncover. I made the mistake of reading a previous nonfiction book of Duerden’s just the week before this one: Get Well Soon (2018), which has a long chapter about his grandparents that told me all I needed to know about them. That’s probably the main reason why this short book struck me as lightweight, though I did ultimately find it a touching tribute, especially to his grandmother. It could make a good Mother’s Day present.
Out today from Elliott & Thompson. My thanks for a proof copy for review.
Love Story by Erich Segal (1970)
This offbeat novella was a bestseller and a successful film. You surely know its most famous line: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” Oliver Barrett IV is a golden boy: his banker father and previous generations of the eminent Barrett family funded various buildings at Harvard, where Oliver is a hockey player in the late 1960s. Jenny Cavilleri, on the other hand, comes from a single-parent Italian-American family in New Jersey. She’s made it to Radcliffe as a harpsichordist, but her father is just a baker; she’d never be considered good enough for the likes of Oliver. But they meet at the Radcliffe library and, sure enough, fall for each other. She calls him “Preppie”; he calls her a bitch. They’re only partially joking. It may be true love against the odds, but it has an expiration date, as we know from the first line: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?”
I wanted to like this more. There’s a pleasing lightness to the style, but because the whole book is from Oliver’s perspective, I felt like Jenny got short shrift: she’s the wise-cracking gal from the block, and then she’s the innocent victim in the hospital bed. Because this is only about 120 pages, there’s not much space in between for her character to be developed. I was somewhat appalled to learn about a 1977 sequel in which Oliver finds a new love.
(Segal’s daughter Francesca is also a novelist (The Innocents).)
Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?
I’d never participated in Nonfiction November before because I tend to read at least 40% nonfiction anyway, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to put together some fiction and nonfiction pairings based on books I’ve read this year and last. (This week of the month-long challenge is posted by Sarah’s Book Shelves, a blog I love for its no-nonsense recommendations of what to read – and what not to read – from the recent U.S. releases.)
My primary example is two books that reveal what it’s really like to have Alzheimer’s disease. Mitchell’s, in particular, is a book that deserves more attention. When it came out earlier this year, it was billed as the first-ever “dementia memoir” (is that an oxymoron?) – except, actually, there had been one the previous year (whoops!): Memory’s Last Breath by Gerda Saunders, which I have on my Kindle and still intend to read. [See also Kate W.’s picks, which include a pair of books with a dementia theme.]
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)
Genova’s writing, Jodi Picoult-like, keeps you turning the pages; I read 225+ pages in an afternoon. There’s true plotting skill to how Genova uses a close third-person perspective to track the mental decline of Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language,” yet her grasp of language becomes ever more slippery even as her thought life remains largely intact. I also particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Cambridge and its weather, and family meals and rituals. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required – Would the disease really progress this quickly? Would Alice really be able to miss certain abilities and experiences once they were gone? – and ultimately I preferred the 2014 movie version, but this would be a great book to thrust at any caregiver or family member who’s had to cope with dementia in someone close to them.
Other fictional takes on dementia that I can recommend: Unforgettable: Short Stories by Paulette Bates Alden, The Only Story by Julian Barnes, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson and Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante.
Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell with Anna Wharton (2018)
A remarkable insider’s look at the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mitchell took several falls while running near her Yorkshire home, but it wasn’t until she had a minor stroke in 2012 that she and her doctors started taking her health problems seriously. In July 2014 she got the dementia diagnosis that finally explained her recurring brain fog. She was 58 years old, a single mother with two grown daughters and a 20-year career in NHS administration. Having prided herself on her good memory and her efficiency at everything from work scheduling to DIY, she was distressed that she couldn’t cope with a new computer system and was unlikely to recognize the faces or voices of colleagues she’d worked with for years. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she took early retirement – a decision that she feels was forced on her by a system that wasn’t willing to make accommodations for her.
The book, put together with the help of ghostwriter Anna Wharton, gives a clear sense of progression, of past versus present, and of the workarounds Mitchell uses to outwit her disease. The details and incidents are well chosen to present the everyday challenges of dementia. For instance, baking used to be one of Mitchell’s favorite hobbies, but in an early scene she’s making a cake for a homeless shelter and forgets she’s already added sugar; she weighs in the sugar twice, and the result is inedible. By the time the book ends, not only can she not prepare herself a meal; she can’t remember to eat unless she sets an alarm and barricades herself into the room so she won’t wander off partway through.
In occasional italicized passages Mitchell addresses her past self, running through bittersweet memories of all that she used to be able to do: “It amazes me now how you did it, because you didn’t have anyone to help you. You were Mum, Dad, taxi, chef, counsellor, gardener and housekeeper, all rolled into one.” Yet it’s also amazing how much she still manages to do as an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Friends. She crisscrosses the country to give speeches, attend conferences, and advise universities; she writes a blog and has appeared on radio to promote this book. Like many retired people, she’s found she’s busier than ever, and her engagements help her to feel purposeful and like she’s giving a positive impression of early-stage dementia. No matter that she has to rely on dozens of reminders to self in the form of Post-It notes, iPad alarms and a wall of photographs.
The story lines of this and Still Alice are very similar in places – the incidents while running, the inability to keep baking, and so on. And in fact, Mitchell reviewed the film and attended its London premiere, where she met Julianne Moore. Her book is a quick and enjoyable read, and will be so valuable to people looking to understand the experience of dementia. She is such an inspiring woman. I thank her for her efforts, and wish her well. This is one of my personal favorites for the shortlist of next year’s Wellcome Book Prize for medical reads.
Additional pairings I would commend to you (all are books I have read and rated or above):
Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
- Celebrating the strength of female friendship, even in the face of life-threatening illness.
Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg
- Vivid portrayals of drug addiction.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich
- Armchair traveling in Greenland.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker
- Glimpses into the high-class world of fine dining – and fine wine.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence is chock-full of recommendations and reading pairs. The Novel Cure is also good for this sort of thing, though it is (no surprise) overwhelmingly composed of fiction suggestions.
Tomorrow the six titles on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve managed to read one more from the longlist since my last batch.
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
Surgery was a gory business with a notably high fatality rate well into the nineteenth century. Surgeons had the fastest hands in the West, but their victims were still guaranteed at least a few minutes of utter agony as they had a limb amputated or a tumor removed, and the danger wasn’t over after they were sewn up either: most patients soon died from hospital infections. The development of anesthetics and antiseptic techniques helped to change all that.
Fitzharris opens with the vivid and rather gruesome scene of a mid-thigh amputation performed by Robert Liston at University College Hospital in London in 1846. This surgery was different, though: it only took 28 seconds, but the patient felt nothing thanks to the ether he had been administered. He woke up a few minutes later asking when the procedure would begin. In the audience that day was Joseph Lister, who would become one of Britain’s most admired surgeons.
Lister came from a Quaker family and, after being educated at University College London, started his career in Edinburgh. Different to many medical professionals of the time, he was fascinated by microscopy and determined to find out what caused deadly infections. Carbolic acid and catgut ligatures were two of Lister’s main innovations that helped to fight infection. In fact, whether we realize it or not, his legacy is forever associated with antiseptics: Listerine mouthwash (invented in 1879) is named after him, and the Johnson brothers of Johnson & Johnson fame started their business mass-producing sterile surgical dressings after attending one of Lister’s lectures.
My interest tailed off a bit after the first third, as the book starts going into more depth about Lister’s work and personal life: he married his boss’s daughter and moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then back to London. However, the best is yet to come: the accounts of the surgeries he performed on his sister (a mastectomy that bought her three more years of life) and Queen Victoria (removing an orange-sized abscess from under her arm) are terrific. The chapter on treating the queen in secret at Balmoral Castle in 1871 was my overall favorite.
I was that kid who loved going to Civil War battlefields and medical museums and looking at all the different surgical saws and bullet fragments in museum cases, so I reveled in the gory details here but was not as interested in the biographical material. Do be sure you have a strong stomach before you try reading the prologue over a meal. This is a comparable read to The Remedy, about the search for a cure to tuberculosis.
Now, I’ve still only read half of the longlisted titles so far, so it’s hard to make any solid guesses. However, the below fall somewhere between wishes and informed predictions:
- In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli: A definitive treatment of an epidemic of our time, Alzheimer’s disease. The neuroscientist author achieves the right balance between history and research on the one hand and personal stories readers can relate to on the other.
- The White Book by Han Kang: The only fiction title from the longlist that I haven’t read at least part of. This is also on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist and has been well received. From what I can tell, the health theme seems stronger than that of Stay with Me or Midwinter Break, and it would also be nice for one title in translation to make the shortlist.
- With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix: As I said in my review last week, this is an excellent all-round guide to preparation for death, based around touching patient stories plus the author’s experience in palliative care and CBT. Practical, compassionate and helpful.
- I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: For me, this book stands out as the one that most clearly illuminates the effects of illness, medical treatment, and other threats to life and limb in the course of an ordinary existence. I’d be very happy to see it win the whole thing.
- EITHER The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris OR The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman: I reckon one history of science title deserves to be on there; I think Wadman might have the slight edge.
- EITHER To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell OR Behave by Robert Sapolsky: The Wellcome Prize loves big books investigating human tendencies and possibilities. I find the thought of either of these daunting, but I know they would also be illuminating. I’d prefer to read the O’Connell, but I’d give the edge to Sapolsky.
Any predictions of your own to make?
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
I’d heard about this book but didn’t feel compelled to get hold of it until David Lodge, one of my favorite authors, named it his book of 2017 in the TLS year-end roundup. I got an e-copy from NetGalley but then found the physical book on the bestsellers display in my local library and found that a more conducive format for skimming. It’s a fairly long and dense book, with smallish type and scientific figures, so I knew I was unlikely to read the whole thing, but enjoyed mining it for fascinating information about evolution, neuroscience and child development.
We often hear that sleep, diet and exercise are the three pillars of health, but Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, goes further: he believes sleep is the platform on which diet and exercise rest. Getting 7–9 hours of sleep a night is not some luxury to aim for but an absolute essential for the brain to process new information and prepare for receiving more the next day. Dreaming is like overnight therapy, and fuels creativity. Sleep deprivation has been associated with dementia and cancer: it’s no accident that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who prided themselves on getting by on just five hours of sleep a night, both developed Alzheimer’s. Just a few nights of insufficient sleep can weaken the immune system and increase the risks of developing a serious illness. It’s no wonder Walker calls sleep loss an epidemic.
Here are some other facts I gleaned:
- During primate evolution, the transition to sleeping on the ground instead of in trees meant we could sleep more deeply – not having to worry about falling out – and the resulting increase in REM sleep and dreams contributed to the development of complex culture and creativity.
- Fetuses are asleep most of the time; they kick in their sleep. Alcohol use during pregnancy or breastfeeding can lead to a decline in the offspring’s sleep quality or quantity.
- People with autism get 30–50% less REM sleep than neurotypical people.
- The postprandial slump in energy many of us experience is evolutionarily inbuilt, and suggests that a short nap (30–40 minutes) would be natural and beneficial. For instance, some African tribespeople still regularly nap at the hottest point of the day.
Walker’s sleep tips are mostly common-sense stuff you will have heard before. His #1 piece of advice is to have a sleep schedule, always going to sleep and waking up at the same time. (“Catching up” on weekends doesn’t work, though napping before 3 p.m. can.) Set an alarm for bedtime so you’ll stick to it, he suggests.
Making It Personal
I like my sleep, and I like my lie-ins. It’s one of many reasons why I don’t have kids. But I hoped that the older I got the better I’d be about waking up in the mornings. That hasn’t seemed to be the case. The past couple of weeks have been abnormal in that my husband has been working from home, too – he’s been on strike from the university and/or keeping clear of the snow – but on an average weekday, when the alarm goes off at a time starting with a 6, I feel like I could sleep for hours more. I usually cover my head with a pillow and stay in bed with the cat curled against my legs for an extra half-hour while my husband showers and starts getting things ready; only when I hear the tea being poured do I finally extricate myself from the covers and lurch downstairs to eat breakfast and make our sandwiches for the day.
One of my bibliotherapy prescriptions was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a 12-week set of readings and exercises – chiefly 20 minutes of automatic writing each morning and creative “dates” you take yourself on. For the former, you set your alarm half an hour early each day and fill three longhand pages with whatever comes to mind. It’s not a journal; it’s more a way of processing what’s going on in your life, gradually moving from mundane thoughts about daily pressures to more creative stuff. But if I can’t wake up for our regular alarm, how in the world would I get up even earlier to commit to this creative exercise? I’ve wondered if I could cheat a bit and do the pages after a short nap in the early afternoons, but I think the idea really is to put down whatever comes into your head first thing every morning.
I can see that this would be a good discipline, especially as I come up to my fifth anniversary of freelancing and take stock of my career. I just don’t know if I can make myself do it.
Have you read anything about sleep, creativity or mindfulness recently?
Also on my TBR to be skimmed:
- 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary
- The Business of Sleep: How Sleeping Better Can Transform Your Career by Vicki Culpin, a TEDx speaker and professor of organizational behavior [forthcoming on May 8th from Bloomsbury Business]
- The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest by Penelope A. Lewis
- Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading