I’m certainly not the first to notice these rather similar titles – both of which appear on this year’s Folio Prize and Women’s Prize longlists. I preferred Diana Evans’s Ordinary People (), which I just finished earlier this week, to Sally Rooney’s Normal People (). The two novels look at fairly average situations – two Black couples with children in South London and the Surrey suburbs; a pair of university students in Ireland – and probe the emotional intricacies.
Michelle Obama’s Becoming is now set to become the bestselling memoir of all time. I enjoyed it as much as any memoir-loving fan of the Obamas would (), but after I found out that it was ghostwritten I couldn’t get that little fact out of my mind. By contrast, Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming is the memoir of a bisexual U.S. Marine captain and tells of the racism and sexism she experienced. It came out last week and has only six ratings on Goodreads, so it’s as under-the-radar as Becoming is overexposed.
Just one letter separates the titles of these two books. I’ve been slowly making my way through All the Lives We Ever Lived, Katharine Smyth’s elegant bibliomemoir about her father’s death and the comfort she found in rereading To the Lighthouse. I don’t know much about All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy, just that it’s set in 1930s India and Bali and has been longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Her previous novel, Sleeping on Jupiter (2015), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Which of the books from these pairs would tempt you?
These two memoirs may be very different in terms of the setting (Texas and Yale versus rural Lancashire) and particulars, but I’m reviewing them together because they are both about dysfunctional families and the extent to which external circumstances determine how others see us – and how we view ourselves.
There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir from the Dark Side of the American Dream by Casey Gerald (2018)
The title comes from a seventeenth-century sign in a French village that was intended to get the God-dazzled peasants back to work. For Gerald it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reminder that his life, even if he has made good after an unpromising beginning, is not some American dream or fairytale. It’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s no sugar-coating his family issues. His father missed his tenth birthday party because he was next door with dope fiends; his bipolar mother was in the psych ward while his father was in jail, and then disappeared for several years. Gerald and his older sister, a college dropout, got an apartment and set their own lax rules. In the meantime, he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay and trying to reconcile his newfound sexual identity with his Christian faith.
In spite of it all, Gerald shone academically and athletically. He was his Texas high school’s valedictorian and followed his father into a thriving college football career – at Yale, where he accidentally fell into leadership via a Men of Color council across the Ivy League schools. It wasn’t until he got to Yale that it even occurred to him that he was poor. (I was reminded of the moment in Michelle Obama’s memoir when she got to Princeton and experienced being a minority for the first time.) As he neared graduation, he decided to go into investment banking “simply because I did not have any money and none of my people had any money.” Back in Texas after a year in a Washington, D.C. think tank, he even considered a run for Congress under the slogan “We can dream again.”
I loved the prologue, which has the 12-year-old Gerald cowering with his church congregation on the last night of 1999, in fear of being left behind at the end of the world. I think I expected religion to continue as a stronger theme throughout the book. The style wasn’t really what I imagined either: it’s a coy combination of reader address, stream-of-consciousness memories, and remembered speech in italics that often set me skimming. Whereas landmark events like his mother’s departure are left impressionistic, football games and the inner workings of Yale’s societies are described in great detail. Scenes in the classroom and with boyfriends, though still occasionally tedious, at least feel more relevant.
Gerald proudly calls himself a “faggot” and is going for a kind of sassy, folksy charm here. For me the tone only landed sometimes. Mostly I appreciated his alertness to how others (often wrongly) perceived him – a great instance of this is when he meets George W. Bush in 2007 and tells him the bare bones of his story, only for Dubya to later twist it into an example in a speech. The memoir tails off into a rather odd and sudden ending, and overall I wasn’t sure it had enough to say to fill close to 400 pages. Perhaps Gerald could have waited another 10 years? As a more successful take on similar themes, I’d recommend the memoir-in-essays Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race by Clay Cane.
There Will Be No Miracles Here was hand-picked by Colm Tóibín for publication by Tuskar Rock Press, a new imprint of Serpent’s Tail, on January 10th. It was published in the USA by Riverhead Books in October 2018. My thanks to the UK publisher for the free copy for review.
When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family that Never Spoke by Catherine Simpson (2019)
On December 7, 2013, Simpson’s younger sister, Tricia, was found dead by their 87-year-old father at the family farmhouse where she lived in Lancashire. She was 46 and had been receiving daily mental health visits for her bipolar disorder, but the family had never been notified about a previous suicide attempt just three weeks before. Simpson excavates her family history to ask how things could have gotten so bad that they didn’t realize that Tricia’s depression had reached suicidal levels.
Simpson’s grandparents – her grandfather a World War I veteran – moved into the property in 1925, so by this time there was literally generations’ worth of stuff to clear out. “I ask myself now: is it possible to dispose of a person’s effects with dignity?” Simpson frets. As she and her father sifted through antique furniture, gadgets and craft supplies, she recalls the previous death in the family: her mother’s from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years before. Growing up on a cattle farm in the 1970s, the three daughters were expected to be practical and unsentimental; there was never any discussion of emotions, and they got the sense that their overworked, unfulfilled mother would rather they weren’t around at all. In this context, it was hard for Tricia to cope with everyday challenges like struggling with schoolwork and the death of a beloved cousin. She started smoking at 12 and went on antidepressants at 19.
Simpson started writing this family memoir on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in February 2016. The first step of her project was to read all of Tricia’s diaries, from age 14 on. There were happy experiences, like six months as a nanny in Vienna and a travel grant to a kibbutz in Israel. There were also unwelcome surprises, like a 1981 suicide note – from when Tricia was just 15. Simpson had never realized just how prone her little sister was to all-or-nothing thinking. She dove headlong into short-lived relationships and, when they failed, feared she would never find love again. Over the years Tricia grew increasingly paranoid, believing she was being watched on the farm and her sisters were plotting to sell the property and leave her with nothing. One time she even locked her parents in to keep them safe.
Although the subtitle is melodramatic, it conveys all that went unsaid in this family: not just sadness, but also love and tenderness. The cover image shows Simpson crying over a dead duckling; Tricia is at the left, her look of consternation startlingly intense for a three-year-old. “It’s only a duck. There’s plenty more where that came from” was their father’s hardhearted response. There are many other family photographs printed in black and white throughout the text; Tricia loved fashion, and is stunning in her glamour shots. While the book is probably overlong, I was absorbed in the family’s story, keen to see how Simpson would reconstruct events through objects, photographs and journals. (My sister is a Tricia, too.) Recommended to readers of Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other.
When I Had a Little Sister will be published by Fourth Estate on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for an early proof copy for review.
Like a lot of book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I’ve noticed recently that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. In 2018 I even came across a handful of books that are for me among the very best representatives of their genre, whether that’s nature, travel, family memoir, historical fiction or science fiction. The below selections are in alphabetical order by author name, and account for all the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year (another 27!).
March by Geraldine Brooks (2005): The best Civil War novel I’ve read. The best slavery novel I’ve read. One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, period. Brooks’s second novel uses Little Women as its jumping-off point but is very much its own story. The whole is a perfect mixture of what’s familiar from history and literature and what Brooks has imagined.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017): The northern Michigan setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996): Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013): Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion.
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007): A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor. This is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation; I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (2017): An ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past. This was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010): Hungarian Jew Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe in 1937–45. It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996): For someone like me who struggles with sci-fi at the best of times, this is just right: the alien beings are just different enough from humans for Russell to make fascinating points about gender roles, commerce and art, but not so peculiar that you have trouble believing in their existence. All of the crew members are wonderful, distinctive characters, and the novel leaves you with so much to think about: unrequited love, destiny, faith, despair, and the meaning to be found in life.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (2015): Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. This is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read; it’s hard to believe it’s Treloar’s debut novel.
Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson (2016): I treated myself to this new paperback edition with part of my birthday book token and it was a perfect read for the week leading up to Christmas. The stories are often fable-like, some spooky and some funny. Most have fantastical elements and meaningful rhetorical questions. Winterson takes the theology of Christmas seriously. A gorgeous book I’ll return to year after year.
Available Light by Marge Piercy (1988): The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe, menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. Some of my favorites were about selectively adhering to the lessons her mother taught her, how difficult it is for a workaholic to be idle, and wrestling the deity for words.
Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell (2011): One of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read; a modern-day Walden. Ansell’s memoir is packed with beautiful lines as well as philosophical reflections on the nature of the self and the difference between isolation and loneliness.
Boy by Roald Dahl (1984): Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here; so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich (2001): I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek across a frigid island nation in the company of Gretel Ehrlich, who traveled here repeatedly between 1995 and 2001 and intersperses her journeys with those of her historical model, Inuit–Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose seven Arctic expeditions took in the west coast of Greenland and the far north of the North American continent. Every time she finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (2017): It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. I loved it.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (2017): A charming introduction to 99 more or less obscure writers. Each profile is a perfectly formed mini-biography with a survey of the author’s major work: in just two or three pages, Fowler is able to convey all a writer’s eccentricities and why their output is still worth remembering.
To the Is-Land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame (1982): This is some of the best writing about childhood and memory that I’ve ever read, infused with music, magic and mystery. The prose alternates between dreamy and matter-of-fact as Frame describes growing up in New Zealand one of five children in the Depression and interwar years.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015): This poignant sequel to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a portrait of Fuller’s two-decade marriage, from its hopeful beginnings to its acrimonious end. What I most appreciated about the book was Fuller’s sense of being displaced: she no longer feels African, but nor does she feel American.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942): Markham writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds. Whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993): An extraordinary memoir based around the author’s relationship with his father. Alternating chapters give glimpses into earlier family life and narrate Morrison’s father’s decline and death from cancer. This is simply marvelously written, not a bad line in the whole thing.
The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson (2017): This is an extraordinarily well-written and -researched book (a worthy Wainwright Prize winner) about the behavior, cultural importance, and current plight of the world’s seabirds. Each chapter takes up a different species and dives deep into everything from its anatomy to the legends surrounding it, simultaneously conveying the playful, intimate real lives of the birds and their complete otherness.
The Long Goodbye: A Memoir of Grief by Meghan O’Rourke (2011): I read a whole lot of bereavement memoirs; this has been one of the very best. O’Rourke tells her story with absolute clarity – a robust, plain-speaking style that matches her emotional transparency. The heart of the book is her mother’s death from colorectal cancer on Christmas Day 2008, but we also get a full picture of the family life that preceded it and the first couple of years of aftermath.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (2017): Eighteen and a half thousand people died in the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. It’s not really possible to get your head around a tragedy on that scale so, wisely, Parry focuses on a smaller story within the story: 74 died at Okawa primary school because the administration didn’t have a sufficient disaster plan in place. This is a stunning portrait of a resilient people, but also a universal story of the human spirit facing the worst.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (2012): A splendid memoir-in-essays that dwells on aging, parenting and female friendship. Some of its specific themes are marriage, solitude, the randomness of life, the process of growing into your own identity, and the special challenges her generation (roughly my mother’s) faced in seeking a work–life balance. Her words are witty and reassuring, and cut right to the heart of the matter in every case.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (2009): Probably the best self-help book I’ve read; dense (in the best possible way) with philosophy, experience and advice. What I appreciated most is that her approach is not about undertaking extreme actions to try to achieve happiness, but about finding contentment in the life you already have by adding or tweaking small habits – especially useful for pessimists like me.
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult by Rebecca Stott (2017): This was a perfect book for my interests, and just the kind of thing I would love to write someday. It’s a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to pancreatic cancer and eliciting her promise to help finish his languishing memoir; it’s a family memoir that tracks generations through England, Scotland and Australia; and it’s a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a Christian sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave.
Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel (1993): Erudite and fascinating author interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two books – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be March by Geraldine Brooks and And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison.
This was the book I wanted Places I Stopped on the Way Hometo be: a wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Edelstein’s memoir also fits into several of my favorite subgenres: it’s a family memoir, a medical memoir and a bereavement memoir all at once. The story opens in Brooklyn in February 2014 as Edelstein, age 32, is trying to build an adult life back in America after 14 years in London and Berlin. Two years earlier her father had told her via Skype from Baltimore that he had lung cancer, and she returned to the States to be closer to help. But when the moment came, she was still unprepared: “if someone had said to me: What would you like to be doing when your father dies? I would not have said, I would like to be looking for love on OKCupid. But I did not have the luxury to make that decision. Who does?”
Her father never smoked yet died of lung cancer; his mother had colon cancer and died at 42. Both had Lynch syndrome, a genetic disease that predisposes people to various cancers. Six months after her father’s death, Edelstein took a genetic test, as he had wanted her to, and learned that she was positive for the Lynch syndrome mutation. The book’s structure (“Between” – “Before” – “After”) plunges readers right into the middle of the family mess, then pulls back to survey her earlier life, everything from childhood holidays in her mother’s native Scotland to being a secretary to a London literary agent who hated her, before returning to the turning point of that diagnosis. How is she going to live with this knowledge hanging over her? Doctors want her to have a prophylactic hysterectomy, but how can she rule out children when she doesn’t yet have a partner in her life?
So many aspects of this book resonated for me, especially moving between countries and having a genetic disease in the family. Beyond those major themes, there were tiny moments that felt uncannily familiar to me, like when she’s helping her mother prepare for an online auction of the contents of the family home in Maryland, or comparing the average cleanliness and comfort of rental properties in England and the States. There are so many little memorable scenes in this memoir: having an allergic reaction to shellfish two days after her arrival in the States, getting locked out of her sublet and having to call an Uzbek/Israeli locksmith at 3 a.m., and subsisting on oatmeal three times a day in London versus going on all-expenses-paid trips to Estonia and Mauritius for a conference travel magazine.
This is a clear-eyed look at life in all its irony (such as the fact that she’s claustrophobic and dreads getting MRI tests when it was her own father, a nuclear physicist, who built the world’s first full-body MRI scanner at Aberdeen) and disappointment. I’m prizing this as a prime example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.
“when I was in London, … I wondered if the problem of having my whole life ahead of me, free and clear and open for anything, was that having an unlimited number of options made the chance of choosing the wrong thing so high.”
“I was not yet old enough to realize that I’d never really know, that there would never be a time when I could think: I am here. This is me, without becoming uncertain again a moment later.”
“When I lived in England I drank a lot of tea, many cups a day, even though I didn’t like it. I learned quite fast after I arrived in London that drinking tea was an important way to connect with people: when I went over to their homes, or if we worked together in an office. Being offered a cup of tea meant that you were being offered an entry to something, and accepting it was important.”
This Really Isn’t About You was published by Picador on August 23rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley
Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions.
The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read.
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement.
The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home
Do you ever find coincidental thematic connections in your reading?
Each month I aim to preview two to four books to be released in the next month that I have already read and can recommend. It’s looking thin on the ground for August because two of my most anticipated reads of the year were disappointments, and another August release I left unfinished; I give mini write-ups of these below. However, I’ve very much enjoyed What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, the debut story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which came out in America in April but releases on the 24th over here; I’ll be reviewing it for Shiny New Books shortly. Also, I’m 20% into The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson (releases August 15th), a fascinating set of sometimes gory true crime case studies.
As for the one August book I’m currently able to wholeheartedly recommend, that is…
The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson
(Coming from Little, Brown and Company on the 22nd)
One for angsty, bookish types. In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleans-based creative writing teacher, her husband, sister and some friends formed an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been a better title). Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and off-beat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.
One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s TheAct of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes. The Trivial is where we live everyday; the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens. Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina. She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.
I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this up if you haven’t the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it might be shattered any second. I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively re-enact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.
“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward. In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghost-hands on my back, nudging me on.”
And now for the ones I’m closer to lukewarm on…
(Reviews in the order in which I read the books.)
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
(Coming from Scribner on the 1st)
I enjoy Tom Perrotta’s novels: they’re funny, snappy, current and relatable; it’s no surprise they make great movies. I’ve somehow read seven of his nine books now, without even realizing it. Mrs. Fletcher is more of the same satire on suburban angst, but with an extra layer of raunchiness that struck me as unnecessary. It seemed something like a sexual box-ticking exercise. But for all the deliberately edgy content, this book isn’t really doing anything very groundbreaking; it’s the same old story of temptations and bad decisions, but with everything basically going back to a state of normality by the end. If you haven’t read any Perrotta before and are interested in giving his work a try, let me steer you towards Little Children instead. That’s his best book by far.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
(Coming from Lenny Books on the 1st [USA] and Bloomsbury Circus on the 10th [UK])
I read “We Love You Crispina” (13%), about the string of awful hovels a family of Chinese immigrants is forced to move between in early 1990s New York City. You’d think it would be unbearably sad reading about cockroaches and shared mattresses and her father’s mistress, but Zhang’s deadpan litanies are actually very funny: “After Woodside we moved to another floor, this time in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except for the nights when rats ran over our faces while we were sleeping and even on the nights they didn’t, we were still being charged twice the cost of a shitty motel.” Perhaps I’m out of practice in reading short story collections, but after I finished this first story I felt absolutely no need to move on to the rest of the book.
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
(Coming on the 24th from Harper [USA] and Bloomsbury [UK])
Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. Now, when I read a novel with a dual narrative, especially when the two strands share a partial setting – here, the Tel Aviv Hilton – I fully expect them to meet up at some point. In Forest Dark that never happens. At least, I don’t think so.* I sometimes found “Nicole” (the author character) insufferably clever and inward-gazing. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.
Andrew G. Marshall is the author of 18 self-help books about relationships. He has written for newspapers, appeared on television and radio programs, and worked as a marriage therapist. However, he has shared little about his own experience of relationships until now. Twenty years have passed since the death of his long-term partner, Thomas Hartwig. Sharing this diary of Thom’s death with several friends and family members who’d suffered recent bereavements seemed to help, so he’s hoping that in book form it can be of wider benefit to those who are in the midst of grief.
Marshall met Thom, then the headmaster of a German language school, on a holiday to Spain in September 1989. They alternated between Germany and England every other weekend for years, and in 1995 Thom finally relocated to join Marshall near Brighton. Thom had plans to start an interior design business, but fell ill just six months later. By early 1997, he had a diagnosis of liver failure and was given weeks to live. They traveled to Germany to get Thom a second opinion and, despite his resolution to die back in England, he breathed his last at the German hospital on March 9th, aged 43.
The above constitutes a brief Part One, while the rest of the book recounts the first full year after Thom’s death. Marshall tracks the changes in several areas of his life:
Family Life: “People become counselors to make sense of their difficult families, and of course I am no exception,” Marshall notes. He grew up in a conservative middle-class family in Bedford and didn’t come out until he was nearly 30. Hugely disappointed that his parents and sister didn’t make it to Thom’s memorial service, Marshall moves from not talking to his family at all to making tentative overtures of reconciliation. There’s a particularly touching scene where he confronts his parents about the way they repressed emotion while he was growing up and hears the words “I love you” from his father for the first time.
Career: For part of his mourning year, Marshall worked on the Agony television program as an “agony uncle.” He took a break from Relate counseling, but continued to write freelance articles, many of them touching on illness and death, and contributed a “Revelations” celebrity profile column to the Independent, in which he interviewed authors and pop stars about life’s turning points. Two of my favorite moments in the book arise from this: Jim Crace (promoting Quarantine) tells how he realized the emptiness of atheism when burying his father; and Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party provides Marshall’s gateway into literary fiction, which he’d never attempted before.
Home Life: “There is something terribly sad about the clutter we accumulate,” Marshall sighs. “I was loved and I did love, but now all I had was this debris.” Thom moved to England with 87 packing cases; even at the hospital in Germany there were two bags of stuff to look through. Back in England, though Marshall tries to navigate around “Thom-shaped holes” in his life, especially near holidays, he realizes this relationship hasn’t ended: he kisses his lover’s ashes goodnight, and heeds Thom’s late advice to replace the vacuum cleaner. Meanwhile he goes on short vacations, sees friends, dogsits, and even tries counseling – but finds it’s “like watching a conjurer saw a lady in half, but knowing how he does it.”
Spirituality: Marshall has several experiences he has trouble explaining. For instance, at certain points he smells vanilla all around him and chooses to take it as a sign of Thom’s enduring presence – a trace of the vanilla candle that burned beside his deathbed. He also has some psychic messages conveyed, by both friends and strangers, and attends a spiritualist service. But it is an interview with forensics expert Kathy Reichs that helps him to once and for all detach the idea of Thom’s dead body from that of his spirit.
Self-Expression: Writing the “Revelations” column and this diary proved better therapy for Marshall than traditional counseling sessions. Towards the end of this book he also takes an introduction to playwriting course, and in the intervening years several of the plays he has written have been performed around the UK.
Love: After Thom’s death, Marshall was desperate for physical comfort, and temporarily found it with Peter, whom he met at a gay sauna. I admired Marshall’s honesty about this fling; it must have been tempting to excise it from the record to make himself look better. But their relationship never went beyond a few dates. This sad story has a happy coda, though: In 2001 Marshall met Ignacio, who became his civil partner in 2008 and his husband in 2015.
I’ve read many bereavement memoirs, but the diary format makes this one a unique blend of momentous occasions – Princess Diana’s funeral and the preparations for a catered dinner party on the anniversary of Thom’s death – and the challenges of everyday life. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has experienced or is currently enduring bereavement; it will be reassuring to read about the flux in Marshall’s emotions and see an example of how to rebuild after loss.
Perhaps this is the reality of mourning: you never get over the loss but reassemble the daily minutiae into a new life. At the beginning it feels like a box of flat-pack furniture with the instructions in Swedish, but finally you discover that tab A can slide into slot B. Eventually you own something quite functional – even though there are always a few screws left over and it never looks as good as it does in the catalogue.
Whether the clairvoyants are correct and Thom has become my guardian spirit is not important[;] he is always with me. I have integrated his personality into mine and in that way he lives on through me.