Book Serendipity, 2019 Second Half
I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. I post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
[Previous 2019 Book Serendipity posts from April and July.]
- Two novels in which a character attempts to glimpse famous mountains out of a train window but it’s so rainy they can barely be seen: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma and The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann.
- Ex-husbands move from England to California and remarry younger women in The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam and Heat Wave by Penelope Lively.
- References to Edgar Allan Poe in both Timbuktu by Paul Auster and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma.
- An account of Percy Shelley’s funeral pyre in both The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma and Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.
- Mentions of barn owls being killed by eating poisoned rats in Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington and Homesick by Catrina Davies.
- Miriam Rothschild is mentioned in Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman and An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell.
- Gorse is thrown on bonfires in Homesick by Catrina Davies and The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam.
- A character has a nice cup of Ovaltine in Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym and The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam.
- I started two books with “Bloom” in the title on the same day.
- Two books I finished about the same time conclude by quoting or referring to the T. S. Eliot lines about coming back to the place where you started and knowing it for the first time (Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington and This Is Not a Drill, the Extinction Rebellion handbook).
- Three books in which the narrator wonders whether to tell the truth slant (quoting Emily Dickinson, consciously or not): The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood.
- On the same day, I saw mentions of crullers in both On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- There are descriptions of starling murmurations over Brighton Pier in both Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman and Expectation by Anna Hope. (Always brings this wonderful Bell X1 song to mind!)
- I was reading The Outermost House by Henry Beston and soon after found an excerpt from it in Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman; later I started The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland, whose title is a deliberate tip of the hat to Beston.
- At a fertility clinic, the author describes a pair of transferred embryos as “two sequins of light” (in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming) and “two points of light” (in Expectation by Anna Hope).
- Mentions of azolla ferns in Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Bloom (aka Slime) by Ruth Kassinger.
- Incorporation of a mother’s brief memoir in the author’s own memoir in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay.
- Artist mothers in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay, and Expectation by Anna Hope.
- Missionary fathers in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada.
- Twins, one who’s disabled from a birth defect and doesn’t speak much, in Golden Child by Claire Adam and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
- An Irish-American family in a major East Coast city where the teenage boy does construction work during the summers in Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- SPOILERS: A woman with terminal cancer refuses treatment so she can die on her own terms and is carried out into her garden in Expectation by Anna Hope and A Reckoning by May Sarton.
- A 27-year-old professor has a student tearfully confide in her in Crow Lake by Mary Lawson and The Small Room by May Sarton.
- Reading The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom at the same time as The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- “I was nineteen years old and an idiot” (City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert); “I was fifteen and generally an idiot” (The Dutch House, Ann Patchett).
- Mentions of a conjuring tricks book in Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
- A teen fleeces their place of employment in Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore.
- A talking parrot with a religious owner in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
- Pictorial book serendipity: three books I was reading, and another waiting in the wings, had a red, black and white color scheme.
- Kripalu (a Massachusetts retreat center) is mentioned in Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene.
- The character of Netty Quelch in Robertson Davies’s The Manticore reminds me of Fluffy in Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House.
- The artist Chardin is mentioned in How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton and Varying Degrees of Hopelessness by Lucy Ellmann.
- A Czech grand/father who works in a plant nursery in the opening story of Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever and Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter.
- The author was in Eva Le Gallienne’s NYC theatre company (Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention and various works by May Sarton, also including a biography of her).
- Gillian Rose’s book Love’s Work is mentioned in both Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth and My Year Off by Robert McCrum. (I will clearly have to read the Rose!)
- Sarah Baartman (displayed in Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”) is mentioned in Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt and Hull by Xandria Phillips.
Short Story Collections Read Recently
This is the fourth year in a row that I’ve made a concerted effort to read more short stories in the alliterative month of September. (See also my 2016, 2017 and 2018 performances.) Short story collections are often hit and miss for me, and based on a few recent experiences I seem to be prone to DNFing them after two stories – when I’ve had my fill of the style and content. I generally have better luck with linked stories like Olive Kitteridge and its sequel, because they rely on a more limited set of characters and settings, and you often get intriguingly different perspectives on the same situations.
So far this year, I’ve read just five story collections – though that rises to 13 if I count books of linked short stories that are often classed as novels (Barnacle Love, Bottled Goods, Jesus’ Son, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, Olive Kitteridge, Olive, Again, That Time I Loved You and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards). Twelve is my minimum goal for short story collections in a year – the equivalent of one per month – so I’m pleased to have surpassed that, and will continue to pick up the occasional short story collection as the year goes on.
The first two books I review here were hits with me, while the third disappointed me a bit.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (2014)
Four of these 10 stories first appeared in the London Review of Books, and another four in the Guardian. Most interestingly, the opening story, “Sorry to Disturb,” about a bored housewife trying to write a novel while in Saudi Arabia with her husband in 1983–4, was published in the LRB with the subtitle “A Memoir.” That it’s one of the best few ‘stories’ here doesn’t negate Mantel’s fictional abilities so much as prove her talent for working in the short form.
My other few favorites were the very short ones, about a fatal discovery of adultery, an appalling accident on a holiday in Greece, and a sighting of a dead father on a train. I also enjoyed “How Shall I Know You?” in which an author is invited to give a talk to a literary society. I especially liked the jokey pep talks to self involving references to other authors: “come now, what would Anita Brookner do?” and “for sure A.S. Byatt would have managed it better.” Other topics include children’s horror at disability, colleague secrets at a Harley Street clinic, and a sister’s struggle with anorexia. The title story offers an alternative history in which Thatcher is assassinated by the IRA upon leaving an eye hospital after surgery.
In her stories Mantel reminds me most of Tessa Hadley. It’s high time I read another Mantel novel; most likely that will be the third Thomas Cromwell book, due out next year.
In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson (2005)
I liked this even more than Simpson’s first book, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, which I reviewed last year. The themes include motherhood (starting, in a couple of cases, in one’s early 40s), death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. There’s gentle humor and magic to these stories that tempers some of the sadness. I especially liked “The Door,” about a grieving woman looking to restore her sense of security after a home break-in, “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff (one of two Christmas-themed stories here) in which a woman is shown how her negative thoughts and obsession with the past are damaging her, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour circular walk during her lunch break and documenting her thoughts about everything from pregnancy to a nonagenarian friend’s funeral. [The UK title of the collection is Constitutional.]
In two stories, “Every Third Thought” and “If I’m Spared,” a brush with death causes a complete change of outlook – but will it last? “The Year’s Midnight” creates a brief connection between frazzled mums at the swimming pool in the run-up to the holidays. “Up at a Villa” and the title story capture risky moments that blend fear and elation. In “The Tree,” which is funny and cringeworthy all at the same time, a man decides to take revenge on the company that ripped off his forgetful old mother. Prize for the best title goes to “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life,” though it’s the least interesting story of the 11.
(Found in a Little Free Library at the supermarket near my parents’ old house.)
Some favorite lines:
“the inevitable difficulty involved in discovering ourselves to others; the clichés and blindness and inadvertent misrepresentations”
“Always a recipe for depression, Christmas, when complex adults demanded simple joy without effort, a miraculous feast of stingless memory.”
“You shouldn’t be too interested in the past. You yourself now are the embodiment of what you have lived. What’s done is done.”
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal (2019)
I had sky-high hopes for Stradal’s follow-up after Kitchens of the Great Midwest (it was on my Most Anticipated list for the second half of the year). Theoretically, a novel about three pie-baking, beer-making female members of a Minnesota family should have been terrific. Like Kitchens, this is female-centered, on a foodie theme, set in the Midwest and structured as linked short stories. Here the chapters are all titled after amounts of money; they skip around in time between the 1950s and the present day and between the perspectives of Edith Magnusson, her estranged younger sister Helen Blotz, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana Winter.
Edith and Helen have a rivalry as old as the Bible, based around an inheritance that Helen stole to reopen her husband’s family brewery, instead of sharing it with Edith. Ever since, Edith has had to work minimum-wage jobs at nursing homes and fast food restaurants to make ends meet. When Diana comes to live with her as a teenager, she, too, works hard to contribute to the family, but then gets caught up in a dodgy money-making scheme. It’s in penance for this error that she starts working at a local brewery, but beer soon becomes as much of an obsession for Diana as it once was for her great-aunt Helen.
I had a few problems with the book’s setup: Helen is portrayed as a villain, and never fully sheds that stereotypical designation; meanwhile, Edith is passive and boring, just a bit “wet” (in British slang). Edith and Diana suffer more losses than seems likely or fair, and there are too many coincidences involved in Diana’s transformation into a master brewer. I also found it far-fetched that a brewery would hire her as a 19-year-old and let her practice making many, many batches of lager, all while she’s still underage. None of the characters fully came alive for me, though Diana was the closest. The ending wasn’t as saccharine as I expected, but still left me indifferent. I did like reading about the process of beer-making and flavor development, though, even though I’m not a beer drinker.
Short story DNFs this year (in chronological order):
Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard – I read the two shortest stories, “Summer Picnic” and “The Proposition.” The former was pleasantly like Elizabeth Taylor or Tessa Hadley lite; I got zero out of the latter.
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro – I read the first two stories. “Decomposition,” about a woman’s lover magically becoming a physical as well as emotional weight on her and her marriage, has an interesting structure as well as second-person narration, but I fear the collection as a whole will just be a one-note treatment of a woman’s obsession with her affair.
Multitudes: Eleven Stories by Lucy Caldwell – I read the first two stories. I enjoyed the short opener, “The Ally Ally O,” which describes a desultory ride in the car with mother and sisters with second-person narration and no speech marks. I should have given up on “Thirteen,” though, a tired story of a young teen missing her best friend.
The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson – I read “Angels in the Snow” (last Christmas) and “Wood Grouse on a High Promontory Overlooking Canada” (the other week). Both were fine but not particularly memorable; a glance at the rest suggests that they’ll all be about baseball and hunting. If I wanted to read about dudes hunting I’d turn to Ernest Hemingway or David Vann. Nevertheless, I’ll keep this around in case I want to try it again after reading Snow Falling on Cedars this winter.
- Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett – Elegant stories about history, science and human error. Barrett is similar to A.S. Byatt in her style and themes, which are familiar to me from my reading of Archangel. This won a National Book Award in 1996.
- Descent of Man by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Even in this slim volume, there are SO MANY stories, and all so different from each other. Some I love; some are meh. I’m tempted to leave a few unread, though then I can’t count this towards my year total…
- Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman – A bibliotherapy prescription for reading aloud. My husband and I read a few stories to each other, but I’m going it alone for the rest. This is fairly inventive in the vein of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, yet I find it repetitive.
See also Laura’s excellent post about her favorite individual short stories.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
20 Books of Summer, #11–13: Harrison, Pym, Russell
It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
Short Fiction for September
I toyed with the wild idea of only reading short stories as my fiction for the month of September, but it was never really going to happen: I just don’t find short stories compelling enough, and in some ways they feel like hard work – every few pages, it seems, you have to adjust to a new scene and set of characters. In the end I made it through one anthology of flash fiction this month, and read parts of three other story collections. Mini reviews below…
Best Small Fictions 2017, edited by Amy Hempel
Now in its third year, the Best Small Fictions anthology collects the year’s best short stories under 1000 words. (I reviewed the two previous volumes for BookTrib and the Small Press Book Review.) Starting with a zinger of a first line is one strategy for making a short-short story stand out, and there are certainly some excellent opening sentences here. Symbols and similes are also crucial to conveying shorthand meaning. Two stand-outs are “States of Matter,” Tara Laskowski’s deliciously creepy story of revenge aided by a gravedigger; and Matthew Baker’s “The President’s Doubles,” in which an island nation becomes so protective of its imperiled leader that he ends up a prisoner. They’ve saved the best for last in this collection, though: the late Brian Doyle’s “My Devils,” in which an Irish-American boy learns how to interpret the adult world by deciphering what people say versus what they mean. It’s remarkable how concisely a coming of age and loss of blind faith are conveyed. Although there are fewer overall highlights than in the first volume, this is an excellent snapshot of contemporary super-short story writing, recommended for story lovers and newbies alike. (See my full review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
How can you not want to read a book with that title? Unfortunately, “The Story about a Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God” is the first story and probably the best, so it’s all a slight downhill journey from there. That story stars a bus driver who’s weighing justice versus mercy in his response to one lovelorn passenger, and retribution is a recurring element in the remainder of the book. Most stories are just three to five pages long. Important characters include an angel who can’t fly, visitors from the mouth of Hell in Uzbekistan, and an Israeli ex-military type with the ironic surname of Goodman who’s hired to assassinate a Texas minister for $30,000. You can never predict what decisions people will make, Keret seems to be emphasizing, or how they’ll choose to justify themselves; “Everything in life is just luck.”
Aside from the title story, I particularly liked “Pipes,” in which the narrator makes himself a giant pipe through which to escape to Heaven, a place for misfits who’ve never found a way to be happy on Earth. Twisted biblical allusions like this are rife, including “Plague of the Firstborn.” A few stories have a folktale-like ambiance. It felt like there were too many first-person narrators, though, and too many repeating plots: “Good Intentions” takes up the same contract killing theme as “Goodman,” while both “Katzenstein” and “Jetlag” involve ejection from a plane. I read everything bar the 86-page novella Kneller’s Happy Campers; after so much flash fiction I wasn’t prepared to change pace so dramatically. So I’ve marked this as unfinished even though I read 110 pages in total. (Read in translation from the Hebrew.)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
I don’t know what it is with me lately, but I seem to lack staying power with story collections. I read the first 40% of Pearlman’s most recent book on my Kindle and then just felt no need to continue. You could consider that a virtue of story collections: you can read as much or as little at a time as you want and pick and choose what bits interest you, in a way that you can’t with novels. Or you could say an author must be doing something wrong if a reader doesn’t long to keep turning the pages.
At any rate, I enjoyed Pearlman’s stories well enough. They all apparently take place in suburban Boston and many consider unlikely romances. My favorite was “Castle 4,” set in an old hospital. Zephyr, an anesthetist, falls in love with a cancer patient, while a Filipino widower who works as a security guard forms a tender relationship with the gift shop lady who sells his disabled daughter’s wood carvings. I also liked “Tenderfoot,” in which a pedicurist helps an art historian see that his heart is just as hard as his feet and that may be why he has an estranged wife. “Blessed Harry” amused me because the setup is a bogus e-mail requesting that a Latin teacher come speak at King’s College London (where I used to work). Two stories in a row (four in total, I’m told) center around Rennie’s antique shop – a little too Mitford quaint for me.
Favorite lines: “Happiness lengthens time. Every day seemed as long as a novel. Every night a double feature. Every week a lifetime, a muted lifetime, a lifetime in which sadness, always wedged under her breast like a doorstop, lost some of its bite.” (from “Stone”)
Even though I didn’t finish either of these books, I’d gladly try something else by the authors. Can you recommend something to me?
Currently reading: After enjoying Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break so much, I picked up one of his short story collections (along with Keret’s) from Book-Cycle in Exeter earlier this month. So far I’ve read the first two stories in The Great Profundo, one about a struggling artist and a lonely widow who connect over an Emily Dickinson passage, and another about a cardinal whose father confesses he lost his faith years ago.
Upcoming: I have collections by Andrea Barrett, T.C. Boyle, Tessa Hadley and Alice Munro on the shelf. I also have far too many languishing on my Kindle, including For a Little While by Rick Bass, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Music in Wartime by Rebecca Makkai and 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams. The ones I’m most likely to get to fairly soon, I think, are Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Reviews Roundup, February–March
One of my goals with this blog was to have one convenient place where I could gather together all my writing that appears in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I don’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first article for the Los Angeles Review of Books – exciting!
Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. The three first-person voices fit together like a dream. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over Communism and homosexuality. Walking into Eden’s office, especially, you’ll think you’ve landed on the set of Mad Men. This classy, well-plotted follow-up will win Rindell even more fans and tide us all over until the film version of The Other Typist – produced by and starring Keira Knightley – appears. Releases May 19th in the UK.
Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. When one of them falls ill, they pull together like a family. The tone of the novel lies somewhere between A Little Life and the sitcom Friends (a Mexican version of which the characters watch obsessively). Even as his characters realize that they are not special and not in control of their lives, Jansma never lets his book descend too far into gloom. Narrowly misses out on 5 stars from me because the storyline loses momentum in Part Two. Rich with emotion and literary allusions (from Walden to The Iliad), this is my favorite novel of the year so far.
Waltzing in Vienna by C.G. Metts (& interview): Three girlfriends – a singer staging a comeback, a psychology professor reawakening to sexuality after being widowed, and a socialite Southern Belle – are reunited in Charleston, South Carolina in their early forties. Remembering their wild college days, they wonder how to make midlife count. There’s a fun Sex and the City or Ya-Ya Sisterhood vibe to this recommended debut novel. I liked the mixture of nostalgia and gentle feminism, and I think this may also inspire readers to see South Carolina’s coastal landscape for themselves. The title phrase is the friends’ shorthand for smoking marijuana together.
The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker: Put simply, this is a fictionalized biography of the largely illiterate Hindu guru Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886). That may sound dry as dust, but Barker makes it a playful delight by skipping around in time and interspersing aphorisms, imagined film scenes, questions and answers, and even a recipe with the narrative chapters. The kernel of the story – set in 1857 at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, six miles north of Calcutta – is narrated in the first person by the guru’s nephew, Hriday. Scripture of all types (the Bible is also cited) is a relevant, joyful echo here rather than a dull set of rules. Bizarre but very readable. Releases April 21st.
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: This composite picture of the state of wildlife conservation in India is told from three perspectives: an elephant named the Gravedigger, a poacher, and a documentary filmmaker. James ably intersperses three voices as she explores how people fail to live up to their ideals and make harmful assumptions. Despite these attributes, it was one of those books I had to force myself through. Perhaps it was the environmental agenda: if a book is going to wear its message so openly, it has to live up to it in terms of the writing. I might have preferred it if the whole novel had been from Emma’s point of view, with one climactic encounter with the Gravedigger to make the poaching question immediate and not simply academic.
Dog Run Moon: Stories by Callan Wink [subscription service]: Wink’s debut story collection, set mostly under Montana’s open skies, stars a motley cast of aimless young men, ranchers, Native Americans, and animals live and dead. He plays around with Western stereotypes in intriguing ways. A few of the tales are a bit less compelling, and I would have preferred more variety in narration (8 of 9 are third person), but the stand-outs more than make up for it. My two favorites were “Runoff” (there’s a double meaning to the title) and “Exotics,” in which all the characters are lured by the life they don’t currently have.
For Books’ Sake
Interview with Rachel B. Glaser, author of Paulina & Fran [my review of which was in last month’s roundup]
Night Ringing by Laura Foley: Foley’s strong fifth collection ruminates on romance and family via autobiographical free verse. One of the collection highlights is “In the Honda Service Area,” which unexpectedly unites modern technology with ancient literature. While a woman describes her impending hip replacement surgery to a friend, Foley tries to concentrate on Homer’s Iliad. The collection is dedicated to Foley’s partner, Clara Giménez, and lesbian romance is a subtle undercurrent. Especially recommended for fans of Jane Hilberry and Adrienne Rich.
The Temple of Paris by Laura DeBruce: This second volume in Laura DeBruce’s Quicksilver Legacy trilogy is a fast-paced fantasy adventure novel. In the previous book, the author introduced the “Immortals,” centuries-old creatures who are impervious to disease and aging due to a magic elixir. If Hana, the teenage protagonist, can learn how to use the elixir in her possession correctly, she can save her mother from a potentially fatal blood disorder. Although the complicated plot might be challenging for those new to the series, older teens will appreciate the rollicking story and the chance for vicarious European sightseeing.
Mon amie américaine by Michèle Halberstadt: After years of heavy smoking and migraines, a brain aneurysm plunges forty-year-old Molly into a coma. The novel is presented as Michèle’s confessional letter to her American friend Molly, addressed in the second person. During Molly’s coma and after she wakes up, Michèle ponders their unlikely friendship and also frets over her threatened marriage. The novella is like a cross between Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, and bears tantalizing traces of deliberate homage to Pedro Almodóvar’s coma-themed Talk to Her: an understated dual account of betrayal and disability.
Specimen: Stories by Irina Kovalyova: “People like to pretend that our genes define the truth for us. But I assure you that’s not the case,” a character insists in the title story. Diverse in setting and form, these nine stories, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, contrast the scientific understanding of genetics with deeper wisdom about the bonds of love and family. Nestling science into rich psychological narratives, Kovalyova’s work is reminiscent of that of Andrea Barrett and A. S. Byatt; in fact, the latter is directly referenced in one story. She also channels Anthony Marra and Adam Johnson by affirming love’s survival in spite of repressive situations.
Of Crime and Passion by Jonathan Harnisch: In this novella, a proud young man seeks to transcend his underprivileged upbringing by worming his way into the homes of the rich and seducing powerful women. At its heart, the book is about the ongoing conflict between economic and social classes. With the melodramatic action and old-fashioned dialogue, though, it is easy to imagine this coming-of-age tale working better in the form of a play.
(a Canadian publication highlighting coastal ecosystems)
Seal by Victoria Dickenson: “It is hard to imagine a creature more distant from the human species in bodily form, habits, and habitat than the seal,” Dickenson writes in her introduction, “yet our mutual regard tells of a long, shared history of interaction.” Seal is the latest in the 80-strong Animal series from Reaktion Books. Like other volumes, this gives a brief discussion of the featured animal’s evolutionary biology, followed by an interdisciplinary survey of how it has entered human culture throughout history. In the final two chapters—the highlight of an occasionally dry book—Dickenson gives a balanced account of the history of hunting seals.
Los Angeles Review of Books
“Rediscovering an Overlooked Woman Novelist”: A dual review of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux () and Miss Grief and Other Stories (), a new selection of Woolson’s short fiction.
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–1894) is most often remembered for her connection to male writers; her great-uncle was pioneering American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, and in her later years as an expatriate in Europe she associated with Henry James, fueling rumors of a romance between them. Deserving to be known in her own right, Woolson represents key junctures between realism and regionalism, and between American and European styles. Gives a remarkable picture of a bold, bright woman who paved the way for writers such as Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster, and Willa Cather, and who arguably might be hailed in the same breath as Henry James and George Eliot.
My quick response to Instructions for a Heatwave, for a Maggie O’Farrell retrospective: Another spot-on tale of family and romantic relationships – O’Farrell always gets the emotional tenor just right. You may spot hints of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, but the psychological and linguistic precision is all O’Farrell’s own. Her descriptive language is unfailingly elegant. I love how she opens with the heat as the most notable character: “It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.”
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox: This wide-ranging essay discusses pretentiousness as it relates to class, taste, and modern art. Fox grew up outside of Oxford but now lives in New York City, where he is the co-editor of frieze. From its Latin etymology we learn that pretentious means “to stretch before,” so to hold something in front of you like a mask. He thus starts off by talking about acting techniques and rhetoric, then broadens this out to themes of authenticity and self-discovery. The most interesting part of the book concerns class connotations. This is a somewhat meandering work, and though it has good individual lines it is not always riveting.
Third Way magazine
I’ve reviewed books, mostly fiction, for them for the last 2.5 years; sadly, the April 2016 issue will be the final one. It’s a shame; the progressive Christian perspective on popular culture is a niche it will be hard to fill.
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris: Barney Norris is a playwright in his twenties, so it’s no surprise that there’s something a little staged to his debut novel. The lives of the book’s five narrators collide one night when a car hits a moped in Salisbury town center. We hear from each protagonist in turn as they reflect on their losses and wonder whether religion – represented by Salisbury Cathedral and the scripture and rituals of Christianity – might help. Rita is the liveliest and most engaging character, difficult as her expletive-strewn narrative might be to traverse. Like David Nicholls, Norris prizes emotional connection and delivers a theatrical plot. If he can avoid the more clichéd aspects of a novel like One Day, he could have a long career in fiction ahead of him. Releases April 21st.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Mosquitoland by David Arnold: I don’t read a whole lot of YA, but the voice of this one captured me right away. Like Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, Mim (Mary Iris Malone) is a lovably sarcastic oddball – she describes herself as “a young Ellen Page” à la Juno – with some hidden issues that come out over the course of the book. Here Mim’s journey takes the form of a road trip from Mississippi, where she lives with her father and new stepmother, back to Ohio to be with her sick mother. She meets a kooky cast of secondary characters along the way, narrowly escapes danger, and even gets a chance at romance.
A Change of World: Poems by Adrienne Rich: This is a forthcoming Norton reissue of Rich’s first collection from 1951. I’d always thought of her as a later, feminist poet, so it was jolting to see an introduction from W.H. Auden – that made it feel like a real generational crossover. It’s a very impressive debut, full of mannered, rhyme-rich verse. Two favorites were “Walden 1950” (“Thoreau, lank ghost, comes back to visit Concord, / Finds the town like all towns, much the same— / A little less remote, less independent”) and “The Innocents.” I’ll be interested to read some of her later work and see if she loosened up with form. Releases June 21st.
The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan: A clever dual-timeline novel with a pleasing Gothic flavor. In 1922 Grace Fairford takes up a governess position at Fenix House near Cheltenham, the very place where her grandmother, Harriet Jenner, worked in 1878. Every few chapters the perspective shifts from Grace (first person) to Harriet (third person). The novel is full of coincidences and the sense of history repeating itself. Riordan’s writing is capable, sometimes clichéd, but the echoes of Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw make this a delicious guilty-pleasure read.
Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark: Etymologically, the word “religion” means to bind together again. Simply put, Dark’s thesis is that we’re all connected: we are in relationship with the people around us and can’t pretend otherwise. What we need is a shared vision for our shared life, and that involves engaging with other people. No pie-in-the-sky theology here; Dark affirms Daniel Berrigan’s assertion that “the actual world is our only world,” so things like climate change, gun control, immigration, and foreign policy are religious issues because they affect us all in this life. Together we have to imagine another story that isn’t capitalism and American imperialism as usual.
Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičević Ivančević: In summer 2009, Dada (aka Rusty) returns to her Croatian hometown to care for her mother. Going home facing up to the fact of her brother’s death – when he was 18 he threw himself under a train. “One has to sit down beside one’s demon and mollify it until it’s calm – that’s all, perhaps, that can be done,” she muses. Now for the title: Dada’s late father, brother, and friends (“the Iroquois Brothers”) were all big on cowboys and Indians. When news comes that a spaghetti western actor/director named Ned Montgomery will be passing through town, it causes Dada to think about her father and her brother and, what’s more, about the workings of her own memory.
Now Go Out There: (and Get Curious) by Mary Karr: There’s not much to this Syracuse University commencement speech. Leftovers of sob-story autobiography and clichéd advice cobbled together. Disappointing given how much I loved Karr’s recent The Art of Memoir. For a truly inspirational graduation address, I recommend David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water.
How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living by Rob Bell: Bell left his pastoral role to become a motivational speaker so, unsurprisingly, this book is closer to self-help than theology. He’s good pals with Elizabeth Gilbert, and this book would make a great companion piece to her Big Magic. It’s about how to find what gets you out of bed in the morning and live mindfully. As always, his formatting – bite-size paragraphs, stretching out phrases with line breaks – is slightly annoying. I didn’t learn a whole lot; it was more a case of being reminded of things I knew deep down. He prefaces most chapters with an anecdote about his creative ventures, some of which were utter failures.
And my highest recommendation goes to…
The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine. One strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by Zinaida, the family’s eldest daughter, a doctor dying of a brain tumor. Zina’s story is offset by those of two contemporary women. Katya, a Russian émigré in London who’s trying to keep her failing publishing house afloat, sends the never-before-published diary to Ana, a translator based near the French border with Switzerland. There’s a touch of mystery here: where was the diary found? And what became of the novel Chekhov mentions he had in progress? Ana’s search for answers takes her to the Lintvaryov estate, even though Ukraine in 2014 is a hotbed of unrest. Having recently watched the BBC War & Peace miniseries with rapt interest and seen a Tchaikovsky symphony performance, it was the perfect time to get lost in an intricate, playful novel about how Russian literature still resonates. I’ll certainly be looking up Anderson’s other novels.
Final Stats for 2015
I smashed through my initial goal of 250 books for the year, ending up at 285 instead. This is without a doubt the most I have read in a year, and I can’t imagine ever topping it.
According to Goodreads, this worked out as 75,387 pages, an average length of 270 pages per book. My average rating, meanwhile, was 3.7, which seems about right.
In terms of your basic genres, I read:
It was a lousy year in terms of family health and drama, but a great one for books.
I even managed to finish the year with a strong contender: Specimen by Irina Kovalyova, eight stories and a novella that incorporate science and family ties in a way that reminded me of Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt. I’ll be reviewing it for Foreword’s next issue.
Happy new year!
How did 2015 turn out for you reading-wise?
The Seed Collectors & The A to Z of You and Me
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
“I have no idea why everyone thinks nature is so benign and glorious and wonderful. All nature is trying to do is kill us as efficiently as possible.”
This offbeat novel about obsession, sex and inheritance is set in Kent in 2011 and stars an extended family of botanists. The concept of a family tree has a more than usually literal meaning here given the shared surname is Gardener and most members are named after plants. We have Great-Aunt Oleander, recently deceased; cousin Bryony and her children Holly and Ash; siblings Charlie and Clem (short for Clematis); and half-sister Fleur, who has taken over Oleander’s yoga center, Namaste House. The generation in between was virtually lost, perhaps to a plant-based drug overdose, on a seed collecting expedition to the South Pacific. Oleander has left each motherless child one of these possibly deadly seed pods.
Did I mention the book is saturated with sex? Incest, adultery, illegitimate children, S&M, Internet porn, you name it. But beyond that, the metaphorical language is highly sexualized – bursting with seeds, fertility and genital-like plants. I can’t think when I’ve encountered such oversexed vocabulary since D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Here’s a sampling:
Dave seems to be avoiding the clouds as he works the little plane up into the sky, penetrating it slowly, and really quite gently.
A surprising amount of plants look like dicks.
(of peat) It’s like walking on a giant’s pubes.
All lettuce wants is sex. And violence. Just like all plants. It wants to reproduce, and it wants to kill or damage its rivals so they don’t reproduce.
So many flowers are basically little sex booths.
And she was pulling him towards her, deeper into her, as if he were a flower and she an insect desperate for his cheap, sugary nectar.
Connections between characters morph and take on new dimensions as the book goes on. A few characters are unrealized, such as Fleur, which meant I felt slightly disconnected from them. (My ‘favorite’ in a book stuffed full of unlikable figures was probably Bryony, whose hunger for food, alcohol and shopping seems to be endless.) Likewise, not all the storylines are truly essential, so the book seems aimless for its final third; it definitely could have been shorter and tied together better, perhaps with some flashbacks to the previous generation’s experiences on the island to make the past feel more alive. The spiritual element remains vague, although there is a pleasant touch of magic realism along the way.
Despite these reservations, I truly enjoyed Thomas’s unusual writing. She moves freely between characters’ perspectives but also inserts odd second-person asides asking philosophical questions about wasted time and what is truly important in life. One peculiar little section even imagines the point-of-view of a robin in the garden of Namaste House, with made-up words fit for “The Jabberwocky”: “The man is, as always, incompt and untrig. He sloggers around his rooms in his black and grey ragtails like an elderly magpie.”
I like the range of questions you’re left with as a reader: Is nature malicious? Can we overcome our addictions? How much of who we are is down to our parentage? Does life really just come down to sex? The content of the novel might be reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Andrea Barrett’s science-infused fiction or The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter, but the style is totally different. I can’t even think who it reminds me of; it feels pretty one of a kind to me. Luckily this is Thomas’s sixth novel, so there’s plenty more for me to explore.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.
The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
Lying in a hospice bed, 40-year-old Ivo looks back on his life. Even after just four short decades and a modest career at a garden center, he has plenty to regret. Hard partying and drug use exacerbated his diabetes and prompted kidney failure. His lifestyle also led indirectly to his girlfriend, a nursing student named Mia (the “you” whom he often addresses directly), leaving him. He’s estranged from his sister and the friends he’d been close to since school days, especially Mal. How did he mess up so badly and cut himself off so completely that he’s now dying alone? And how much can he put right before he goes?
There’s plenty of affecting writing in Hannah’s debut novel, as in one of my favorite passages: “The sun chooses this moment to radiate through to me, through me. It feels like – it feels like life. I can sense my corrupt blood bubbling and basking beneath the surface.” I also love how Hannah captures the routines of institutional life – the sights, smells and sounds that come to define Ivo’s circumscribed life:
Round the corner now. Noticeboard up on the right, pinned every inch over with flyers and leaflets. The papers at the bottom lift and flutter in the convection of the heater beneath.
I am lost in a world of regular hums, distant beeping, the periodic reheating of the coffee machine in the corridor, and that steady kazoo [of his next-door neighbor’s breathing].
Nurse Sheila and Amber, the daughter of another hospice patient, are great supporting characters. Sheila’s A to Z game, encouraging Ivo to think of a memory attached to body parts starting with each letter of the alphabet, provides a hokey but effective structure. As Ivo’s condition deteriorates and his thoughts are scrambled by morphine, his narration gradually becomes less coherent and more insular. This means that by the time we reach the conclusion (which somehow manages to be both predictable and shocking at the same time), we aren’t sure whether he’s giving a reliable account of events or imagining things.
Ultimately, I felt confused about what Hannah meant for the book to be. Is this Irvine Welsh lite? Or a Rachel Joyce style tear-jerker? It’s similar in setup to The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, you see, and the remembered relationship with Mia is rather sappy. However, keep in mind that in British English the letter Z is pronounced ‘zed’, so the title doesn’t rhyme, which keeps it from being overly twee. Another barrier to my appreciation of the novel was that I never understood why Ivo was dying. People don’t die of kidney failure nowadays, thanks to dialysis and transplantation. (I have a kidney disease, so I should know!)
I’d recommend this book to fans of Mark Haddon, David Nicholls and Donal Ryan. I’ll follow Hannah’s career and hope he can avoid melodrama and a contrived structure – the two near-pitfalls of this one – in the future.
With thanks to Transworld Books for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.