I’m always interested to find out how people who aren’t regular followers catch wind of my blog. The web searches documented in my WordPress statistics are often bizarre, but do point to what have been some of my most enduringly popular posts: reviews of The First Bad Man, The Girl Who Slept with God, and The Essex Serpent; and write-ups of events with Diana Athill and Michel Faber. I also get a fair number of searches for Ann Kidd Taylor, whose two books I’ve featured at different points.
Here are some of the more interesting results from the last six months or so. My favorite search of all may well be “underwhelmed by ferrante”! (Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout.)
October 19: the undiscovered islands malachy tallack, the first bad man, ann kidd taylor wedding
October 21: prose/poetry about autumn
November 2: ann kidd taylor, irmina barbara yelin, the first bad man summary, diana athill on molly keane
November 6: michel faber poems, essex serpent as byatt, book summary of the girl who slept with gid byval brelinski
November 17: book cycle, james lasdun, novel the girl who slept with god
November 25: john bradshaw the lion in the living room, bibliotherapy open courses the school of life, barbara yelin irmina, 2016 best prose poem extracts
December 5: seal morning, paul evans field notes from the edge, at the existentialist café: freedom, being, and apricot cocktails with jean-paul sartre, simone de beauvoir, albert camus, marti, read how many books at once
December 23: midwinter novel melrose, underwhelmed by ferrante
January 6: charlotte bronte handwriting, hundred year old man and john irving
January 12: memorable prose on looking forward, felicity Trotman
January 24: patient memoirs, poirot graphic novel, first bad man review, he came beck why? love poems
January 26: reading discussion essex serpent, elena ferrante my brilliant friend dislike
February 3: what are chimamanda’s novels transkated to films, ann kidd taylor, shannon leone fowler, i read war and peace and liked it
February 15: “how to make a french family” “review”, book that literally changed my life, the essex serpent summary
March 13: my darling detective howard norman, the essex serpent book club questions, the first bad man summary
March 22: the doll’s alphabet, joslin linder genetic disorders
March 31: detor, louisa young michel faber
May 7: the essex serpent plot, rebecca foster writer, book about cats, gauguin the other world dori fabrizio
This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA. (Mothering Sunday generally falls in March here in the UK, so every year I have to buy a card early to send to my mother back in the States, but I still associate Mother’s Day with May.) Earlier in the year I got over halfway through a Goodreads giveaway book, Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart, before I realized its author was the daughter of a Canadian novelist I’d read before, Jane Urquhart. That got me thinking about other mother–daughter pairs that might be on my shelves. I found one in the form of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees plus an advance e-copy of her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor’s upcoming debut novel, The Shark Club. (I’ve previously reviewed their joint memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates.) And, as a bonus, I have a mini-review of Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday: A Romance.
The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart
From 1986, this was Urquhart’s first novel. Overall it reminded me of A. S. Byatt (especially The Virgin in the Garden) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Set in 1889 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it features characters who, each in their separate ways, are stuck in the past and obsessed with death and its symbolic stand-in, the whirlpool. Maud Grady, the local undertaker’s widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who’ve tried to swim the Falls. Her creepy young son starts off mute and becomes an expert mimic. Major David McDougal is fixated on the War of 1812, while his wife Fleda camps out in a tent reading Victorian poetry, especially Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that may never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her.
Each of these narratives is entertaining, but I was less convinced by their intersections – except for the brilliant scenes when Patrick and Maud’s son engage in wordplay. In particular, I was unsure what the prologue and epilogue (in which Robert Browning, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley’s death by drowning) were meant to add. This is the second Urquhart novel I’ve read, after Sanctuary Line. I admire her writing but her plots don’t always come together. However, I’m sure to try more of her work: I have a copy of Away on the shelf, and Changing Heaven (1990) sounds unmissable – it features the ghost of Emily Brontë! [Bought from a Lambeth charity shop for 20p.]
Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart
In December 2010, the author’s first child, Sadie, was born with white hair. It took weeks to confirm that Sadie had albinism, a genetic condition associated with extreme light sensitivity and poor eyesight. A Canadian folklorist, Urquhart is well placed to trace the legends that have arisen about albinos through time and across the world, ranging from the Dead Sea Scroll story of Noah being born with blinding white skin and hair to the enduring superstition that accounts for African albinos being maimed or killed to use their body parts in folk medicine.
She attends a NOAH (America’s National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) conference, discovers potential evidence of a family history of albinism, and even makes a pilgrimage to Tanzania to meet some victims. It’s all written up in as engaging present-tense narrative of coming to terms with disability: to start with Urquhart is annoyed at people reassuring her “it could be worse,” but by the end she’s ever so slightly disappointed to learn that her second child, a boy, will not be an albino like his sister. [Goodreads giveaway copy]
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago that this debut novel was an It book, and harder to believe that I’d never managed to get around to it until now. However, in some ways it felt familiar because I’d read a fair bit of background via Kidd’s chapter in Why We Write about Ourselves and Traveling with Pomegranates, in which she and her daughter explored the Black Madonna tradition in Europe.
It joins unusual elements you wouldn’t expect to find in fiction – beekeeping and the divine feminine – with more well-trodden territory: the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, unhappy family relationships, secrets, and a teenage girl’s coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Lily is an appealing narrator who runs away from her memories of her mother’s death and her angry father, peach farmer T. Ray. You can’t help but fall in love with the rest of her new African-American, matriarchal clan, including their housekeeper, Rosaleen, who scandalizes the town by registering to vote, and the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May, who give Lily and Rosaleen refuge when they skip town.
Although this crams in a lot of happenings and emotional ups and downs, it’s a charming story that draws you into the brutal heat of a South Carolina summer and keeps you hoping Lily will forgive herself and slip into the rhythms of a purposeful life of sisterhood. [Secondhand purchase in America]
A favorite line: “The way people lived their lives, settling for grits and cow shit, made me sick.”
The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor
Dr. Maeve Donnelly loves sharks even though she was bitten by one as a child. She’s now a leading researcher with a Florida conservancy and travels around the world to gather data. Her professional life goes from strength to strength, but her personal life is another matter. Aged 30, she’s smarting from a broken engagement to her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, and isn’t ready to open her heart to Nicholas, a British colleague going through a divorce.
Things get complicated when Daniel returns to their southwest Florida island to work as the chef at her grandmother’s hotel – with his six-year-old daughter in tow. Maeve is soon taken with precocious Hazel, who founds the title club (pledge: “With this fin, I do swear. To love sharks even when they bite. When they lose their teeth, I will find them. When I catch one, I will let it go”), but isn’t sure she can pick up where she left off with Daniel. Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced of a local shark finning operation, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
This is a little bit romance and a little bit mystery, and Taylor brings the Florida Keys setting to vibrant life. It took a while to suspend disbelief about Maeve’s background – an orphan and a twin and a shark bite survivor and a kid brought up in a hotel? – but I enjoyed the sweet yet unpredictable story line. Nothing earth-shattering, but great light reading for a summer day at the beach. Releases June 6th from Viking. [Edelweiss download]
Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift
If you’re expecting a cozy tale of maternal love, let the Modigliani nude on the U.K. cover wipe that notion out of your mind. Part of me was impressed by Swift’s compact picture of one sexy, fateful day in 1924 and the reverberations it had for a budding writer even decades later. Interesting class connotations, too. But another part of me thought, isn’t this what you would get if Ian McEwan directed a middling episode of Downton Abbey? It has undeniable similarities to Atonement and On Chesil Beach, after all, and unlike those novels it’s repetitive; it keeps cycling round to restate its main events and points. There’s some good lines, but overall this felt like a strong short story stretched out to try to achieve book length. [Library read]
Back in May I surveyed a few months’ worth of the (often very odd) web searches that led people to my blog. In the past four and a half months the search terms have been more normal in that they generally relate to books or authors I’ve covered. However, I do hope I haven’t disappointed some searchers: after all, I don’t reveal the exact location of the croft in Seal Morning, instruct readers in how to pronounce ‘Athill’, or give any details about Ann Kidd Taylor’s wedding!
In any case, it’s always interesting to see what people were looking up – Oliver Balch’s Under the Tump, Michel Faber’s Undying, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and various graphic novels were popular topics – and I reckon I count among the “bookish cat people” of the first search. (Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout this list!)
May 26: bookish cat people, oliver balch under the tump
May 31: a book review of any book about 140-160 words, in my next life i want to be a cat. to sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. to sit around licking my ass., under the tump by oliver balch reviews
June 25: irmina yelin, george watsky bipolar
July 2: michel faber undying goodreads, the first bad man book miranda july plot
July 16: she’s my only father’s daughter, essex serpent, sue gee, hay on wye
July 21: the ghost of nelly burdons beck
August 5: correct pronunciation of athill in diana athill s name
August 11: the essex serpent usa release
August 24: ann kidd taylor wedding
August 25: paintings with a woman reading a book
August 29: michel faber undying review, to the bright edge of the world interview
September 8: agatha christie graphic novel, house of hawthorne
September 13: irmina by barbara yellen
September 19: paulette bates
September 21: bbc miniseris vs book war and peace
September 26: vincent van gogh graphic novel
September 28: reviews on my son my sonby howard spring
September 30: seal morning location of croft
October 3: john pritchard_something more
I spotted an odd coincidence the other week: I’ve read three books with the word ‘pomegranate’ in the title. It’s not a word (or a fruit) you encounter every day, and it has some interesting metaphorical and mythological connections with womanhood that are worth exploring. Here, then, are those three books and some things they have in common:
In this unusual travel memoir, novelist Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, a budding writer herself, swap reflections on their travels to sites in Greece and France associated with the sacred feminine and wonder what kind of women they want to be. Taylor’s trip to Greece in college had been life-changing, even giving her the idea of becoming an ancient Greek scholar, but when she was rejected by her chosen graduate school it threw her for a loop and sparked a years-long depression that distanced her from her mother and her true self.
Meanwhile, Kidd had only written nonfiction at this point but longed to be a novelist and had initial plans for The Secret Life of Bees floating in her mind. She was able to reconnect with Taylor on this first trip to Greece, and bought them matching glass pomegranate charms to wear on necklaces as a salient reminder of the myth of Demeter rescuing her beloved daughter Persephone from the underworld. As they journeyed on to France looking for Black Madonna statues like the one at Rocamadour, both Kidd and Taylor turned secrets of the heart into wishes and promises expressed to the Goddess.
As they returned to South Carolina and Taylor prepared for marriage, Kidd transitioned from myth to fairy tales while pondering the turn of generations. The fact that Taylor wore Kidd’s old wedding dress only underscored for her that “The Young Woman inside has turned to go, but the Old Woman has not shown up.” All the same, she was going through menopause and having to adjust to a new relationship with her body. “Perhaps all mothers of daughters possess a secret talking mirror that announces when their young womanhood begins to fade and their daughters’ begin to blossom,” she muses. “As in the fairy tale, the experience can unleash a lacerating jealousy in some mothers.”
This is a book with vivid settings, carefully recreated scenes and dialogue, mythological echoes, and strong feminist themes. For both Kidd and Taylor, the struggle was to balance Hestia (a home life) with Athena or Joan of Arc (the intellect and sense of adventure). “I learned how easy it is to give up and become draperies while everyone else is dancing,” Taylor laments. For both her and her mother, these travels in search of the sacred feminine were all about finding inner courage and acting on creative urges despite fear.
(Taylor gives her mother the first and last word; initially she was going to write up their journeys by herself, but later enlisted her mother’s help to give the full story – or, being cynical, to have a big-name draw. It is a shame that Taylor hasn’t managed to write anything else in all this time given that her writing is nearly as good as her mother’s. I loved Kidd’s The Invention of Wings but still haven’t read Bees, her breakout novel, so this has whetted my appetite to finally pick that one up.)
I read this perhaps nine years ago now; it was one of the first books – along with A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Without a Map by Meredith Hall – that really turned me on to memoirs, now one of my very favorite genres, and got me thinking about illness and death and how we respond to these in writing. Gabriel, an Oxford journalist, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 44; her mother had died of the same disease at age 42, when Gabriel was a teenager. Two years before the diagnosis, Gabriel had genetic testing and discovered that she had an inherited mutation on the BRCA gene that made cancer nearly inevitable for her.
Exploring her past and chronicling the grueling treatment process she underwent while raising two small children, Gabriel looks for meaning and connections in a life-and-death struggle. Like Traveling with Pomegranates, this book weaves in the mythology surrounding Persephone and Demeter, bringing with it themes of abandonment and the hope of escaping the pull of the underworld.
Secrets of the Pomegranate, Barbara Lamplugh
I reviewed this debut novel for The Bookbag in April. As in the Kidd–Taylor book, themes of women’s identity and creative bravery come through strongly. The title refers not only to the book’s setting, the Spanish city of Granada (which literally means pomegranate), but also serves as a symbol for female fertility. Also, as Lamplugh revealed in my interview with her, “According to the Qu’ran, [the pomegranate] grows in the gardens of paradise” – which is important to the novel given the main character’s study of Islamic women’s history as well as her relationship with a Muslim man.
Q: When is a fruit not just a fruit?
A: When it has as many symbolic and mythological associations as the pomegranate.
Have you noticed odd little connections between books before, whether their titles or themes? Share them in the comments below!