A Trip to Kyoto with Muriel Barbery and Florentyna Leow (#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies)
One of my most recent Book Serendipity incidents was reading these two 139-page books about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often touring temples) at the same time. They’re also both from independent publishers, so I’m taking the opportunity to review them together for Read Indies month. The Barbery is also towards Marina Sofia’s casual French February challenge.
A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson]
That Barbery is a Japanophile was clear from her whimsical The Writer’s Cats, which I reviewed for Novellas in November in 2021. Here she takes inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic of minimalist prose, melancholy walks in rainy gardens, and a mixture of legends and stoic Buddhist philosophy. Rose, the half-French, half-Japanese protagonist, is in Kyoto to hear the reading of the will made by her late father, Haru, a contemporary art dealer.
A 40-year-old botanist, Rose is adrift, her father’s death just the latest in a string of losses that have caused her to close off her heart. Her time in Kyoto, while she waits to meet with the lawyer, is a low-key cycle of visits to gardens and Buddhist temples, sake-soused meals, going to bed sad and tipsy, and waking up to rain and preparing to do it all over again. Her minder is Paul, a Belgian who was her father’s assistant. They initially find each other irritating, but are gradually drawn together as two damaged souls.
There are lovely descriptive passages, and the theme of the inescapability of suffering cannot be refuted. The universality of loss comes across in key quotes from Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke, respectively: “in this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers” and “A single rose is every rose.” Still, I somehow found this work both too subtle (the only vaguely relevant chapter-opening snippets of history or legend) and too obvious (“Everybody hurts” is hardly a groundbreaking message). This was my third novella by Barbery. Shall I carry on and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog as well?
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow (2023)
On the face of it, this collection has quite a lot in common with Nina Mingya Powles’s Tiny Moons, from the same publisher: travel- and food-inspired essays that loop through some of the same experiences of loneliness and disorientation. The writers also have a similar background, with Leow a Malaysian Chinese woman living in Japan. She is able to pass for Japanese and so is experienced at code-switching as she moves from temple to jazz bar to teahouse and learns new dialects and accents.
For some years she made a living by leading tours she could never have afforded herself. Much as she loves Kyoto and its sights, she tired of the crowds and of seeing the same temples all the time. It took a stranger observing that she seemed unhappy in her work for her too realize it was time for a change.
This disillusionment and the end of her friendship with her female housemate are the main themes of this short book, especially in the six-part title essay. Interestingly, she describes the end of their relationship in the sort of terms that would generally be used for a romantic break-up, despondently querying what went wrong between them when they had been so happy picking and cooking the fruit from the persimmon tree outside their apartment window. Indeed, later on she cites the concept of a “romantic friendship.”
But I think what she was really mourning was the temporary nature of life. We’re nostalgic for golden times we can never get back. I think of parts of my early twenties like that. I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life now to go back in time (or maybe I would), but those periods will always glow in my memory.
My favourite essays were “Persimmons,” “A Bowl of Tea,” “A Rainy Day in Kyoto” and “Egg Love” – prove you care for someone by learning how they like their eggs. This wasn’t a particularly stand-out read for me, especially in comparison to the Powles, but I’d happily read more by Leow in the future.
A favourite passage:
REASONS FOR TEA
To celebrate. To thank someone. To enjoy the scent of different incense. To listen to the rain. To view an autumn moon reflected on a pond outside. To watch snow blanket the garden. To hear the texture of that silence. To walk through freshly fallen snow before dawn on the way to the teahouse. To drink tea by candlelight. To remember someone. To bask in the light, the cool of early summer mornings. Because it is spring. Because the leaves are changing colour. Because it is autumn. Because the plum blossoms are out. Because the world is beautiful. Because why not?
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart will be published on 23 February. With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.
Until the Future: “Tomorrow” Novels by Emma Straub & Gabrielle Zevin
These two 2022 novels I read from the library recently were such fun, but also had me fighting back tears – they’re lovely, bittersweet reads that think seriously about time and failure and loss (and prompted me to ask myself, “Was everything better in 1995–6?” The answer to which is an emphatic YES). If you’re a city-goer, you’ll appreciate the loving depictions of New York City and Los Angeles. They’re also perfect literary/ commercial crossovers that I can imagine recommending to just about any of my readers. Both:
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
Emma Straub is one of the most reliable authors I know for highly readable literary fiction (see also: Jami Attenberg, Maggie O’Farrell and Ann Patchett): while there’s always a lot going on in terms of family dysfunction and character dynamics, her plots are juicy and the prose slides right down (especially Modern Lovers, as well as The Vacationers). Here Alice Stern is a frustrated 40-year-old who feels stuck career- and relationship-wise, working in admissions in the same NYC private school she once attended and living with an okay boyfriend she secretly hopes won’t propose. She devotes much of her emotional energy to her seriously ill father, Leonard, who it seems may never be released from the hospital.
Leonard is the one-hit sci-fi author of a cult classic about time travel, and when an inebriated Alice falls asleep near her childhood home on the night of her 40th birthday, she has her own time-travel adventure, waking up on her 16th birthday in 1996. This is her chance, she thinks: to make sure things go right with her high school crush, and to encourage her father to write more and adopt healthier habits so he won’t be dying in a hospital 24 years down the line. As she figures out the rules of this personal portal and attempts the same transition again and again, she starts to get the hang of what works; what she can change and what is inexorable. And she tries to be a better person, both then and now.
True sci-fi aficionados would probably pick holes in the reasoning, but I would say so long as you pick this up expecting a smart commentary on relationships, ageing, loss and regret rather than a straight-up time-travel novel, you’ll be just fine. Straub is closer to my older sister’s age than mine, but I still loved the 1990s nostalgia, and looking back at your childhood/teen years from a parent’s perspective can only ever be an instructive thing to do.
It’s clever how Straub starts cycling through the time changes faster and faster so they don’t get repetitive. The supporting characters like Sam (Alice’s African American best friend), Kenji and even Ursula the cat are great, and there are little nods throughout to other pop culture representations of time travel. This was entertaining and relatable, but also left me with a lump in the throat. And it was all the more poignant to have been reading it just as news hit of author Peter Straub’s death; it’s a daughter’s tribute.
Some favourite lines:
(Alice thinking about Leonard) “She would feel immeasurably older when he was gone.”
“Maybe, she thought, … her mistake had been assuming that somewhere along the line, everything would fall into place and her life would look just like everyone else’s.”
(in 1996) “Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early”
“Any story could be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on where you ended it. That was the magic, how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.”
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
I didn’t think I’d ever read another novel by Zevin after the dud that was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (by far my most popular negative review on Goodreads), but Laura’s fantastic review changed my mind.
Here’s the summary I wrote for Bookmarks magazine:
Sadie Green and Sam Masur met in unlikely circumstances. In 1986, Sam’s serious foot injury had him in a children’s hospital, where Sadie was visiting her sister, who had cancer. They hit it off talking video games, but Sam was hurt to learn Sadie kept up the visits to earn community service hours for her bat mitzvah. When they meet again during college in Boston, they decide to co-design a game. Helped by his roommate and her boyfriend, they create a bestseller, Ichigo, based on The Tempest. Over the decades, these gaming friends collaborate multiple times, but life throws some curveballs. A heartwarming story for gamers and the uninitiated alike.
The novel was more complicated than I expected, mostly because it spans nearly 30 years – and my main critique would probably be that a shorter timeline would have been more intense. It also goes to some dark places as it probes the two central characters’ traumas and tendency to depression. But their friendship, which over the years becomes a business partnership that also incorporates Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, is a joy. The creative energy and banter are enviable. Marx is the uncomplicated, optimistic go-between when Sam and Sadie butt heads and take offense at perceived betrayals. Underneath Sam and Sadie’s conflicts is a love different from, and maybe superior to, romantic love (I think Sam might best be described as ace).
Gaming comes across as better than reality in that it offers infinite possibilities for do-overs. Life, on the other hand, only goes in one direction and is constrained by choices, your own and others’. Part VII, “The NPC” (for non-player character), is in second person narration and is beautiful as well as heartbreaking – I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.
Apart from playing Super Mario with older cousins at 1990s family reunions and a couple of educational computer games with my childhood best friend, I don’t have any history with gaming at all, yet Zevin really drew me in to the fictional worlds Sadie and Sam created with their games. What with the vivid imagery and literary allusions, EmilyBlaster, Ichigo and Master of the Revels are real works of art, bridging high and low culture and proving that Dickinson’s poetry and Shakespeare’s plays are truly timeless. I was also interested to see how games might be ahead of their time socio-politically.
This reminded me most of The Animators and The Art of Fielding, similarly immersive stories of friendship and obsessive commitment to work and/or play. In the same way that you don’t have to know anything about cartooning or baseball to enjoy those novels, you don’t have to be a gamer to find this a nostalgic, even cathartic, read.
Some favourite lines:
“for Marx, the world was like a breakfast at a five-star hotel in an Asian country—the abundance of it was almost overwhelming. Who wouldn’t want a pineapple smoothie, a roast pork bun, an omelet, pickled vegetables, sushi, and a green-tea-flavoured croissant? They were all there for the taking and delicious, in their own way.”
Sam to Sadie: “We work through our pain. That’s what we do. We put the pain into the work, and the work becomes better.”
Marx (who was a college actor) in the early years, citing Macbeth: “What is a game? It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”
Short Stories in September, Part II: Andreades, Ferris, Fliss and Mulvey
It’s my aim to read as many short story collections as possible in September. After a first three earlier in the month, here are my next four.
Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades (2022)
It was Susan’s review that first enticed me to read this linked story collection. I’m always intrigued by the use of the first-person plural, though it can have downsides – in trying to be inclusive of the breadth of experiences of the “us,” the content can edge toward generic. I worried things were going that way in the early chapters about girlhood “in the dregs of Queens, New York,” but the more I read the more I admired Andreades’s debut. Each chapter is a fantastic thematic fragment adding up to a glistening mosaic of what it means to be a woman of colour in the USA. Desires and ambitions shift as they move from childhood to adolescence to college years to young adulthood, but some things stay the same: their parents’ high expectations, the pull of various cultures, and near-daily microaggressions.
Our families’ legacies, the histories we’ve inherited: grandparents who never learned to read, U.S.-backed dictatorships, bombs, wars, refugee camps, naval bases, canals, gold, diamonds, oil, missionaries, brain drain, the American Dream.
No matter their zip code or tax bracket, listen as these white people deem us and our families the good immigrants, the hard-working ones—not like the lazy people in this country who are a burden on the system.
The fulcrum is the sudden death of one of their number, Trish, which has repercussions through the second half of the book. It raises questions of mental health and whether friendships will last even when they move beyond Queens.
I especially loved Part Five, about a trip back to the motherland that leaves the brown girls disoriented from simultaneous sensations of connection, privilege and foreignness. “The colonized, the colonizer. Where do we fall?” My individual favourite chapters were “Duty,” about giving up on parentally prescribed medical studies to pursue a passion for art; “Patriotic,” about deciding whether or not to have children; and “Our Not-Reflections,” about age allowing them to understand what their mothers went through when they were new to the country. One critique: I would have omitted the final Part Eight, which is about Covid and death in general; the book didn’t need an update to feel timely. It’s a shame this wasn’t at least longlisted for the Women’s Prize this past year. (New purchase with a book token)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris (2017)
I’ve read a couple of Ferris’s novels but this collection had passed me by. “More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)” is set in the same office building as Then We Came to the End. Most of the entries take place in New York City or Chicago, with “Life in the Heart of the Dead” standing out for its Prague setting. The title story, which opens the book, sets the tone: bristly, gloomy, urbane, a little bit absurd. A couple are expecting their friends to arrive for dinner any moment, but the evening wears away and they never turn up. The husband decides to go over there and give them a piece of his mind, only to find that they’re hosting their own party. The betrayal only draws attention to the underlying unrest in the original couple’s marriage. “Why do I have this life?” the wife asks towards the close.
Marital discontent and/or infidelity is a recurring feature, showing up in “A Night Out” and “The Breeze,” which presents the different ways a couple’s evening might have gone. I liked this line about the difficulty of overcoming incompatibilities: “Why could she not be more like him and why could he not be more like her?” It seems from my short story reading that there is always one story I would give a different title. Here I would rename “The Valetudinarian” (about a Florida retiree who ends up in a comical health crisis) “They don’t give you a manual” after his repeated catchphrase.
A few of the 11 stories weren’t so memorable, but the collection ends with a bang. “A Fair Price” appears to have a typically feeble male protagonist, frustrated that the man he’s hired to help move his belongings out of a storage unit is so taciturn, but the innocuous setup hides a horrific potential. (Public library)
The Predatory Animal Ball by Jennifer Fliss (2021)
These 40 flash fiction stories try on a dizzying array of genres and situations. They vary in length from a paragraph (e.g., “Pigeons”) to 5–8 pages, and range from historical to dystopian. A couple of stories are in the second person (“Dandelions” was a standout) and a few in the first-person plural. Some have unusual POV characters. “A Greater Folly Is Hard to Imagine,” whose name comes from a William Morris letter, seems like a riff on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but with the very wall décor to blame. “Degrees” and “The Thick Green Ribbon” are terrifying/amazing for how quickly things go from fine to apocalyptically bad.
Grief and especially pregnancy loss are repeated elements. In “Yolk,” a woman finds a chicken embryo inside a cracked egg and it brings back memories of her recent stillbirth. In “All Your Household Needs,” a bereaved voice-over artist sympathizes with a child who picks up a stuffed Lucky the Dog whose speech she recorded. In “What Goes with Us,” an unreturned library book is a treasured reminder of a dead partner; “May His Memory Be a Blessing” lists many other such mementoes. Even the title story, whose main character is a mouse, opens with the loss of a loved one and posits compassion from an unexpected source.
It’s hard to get a sense of an author’s overall style from such disparate material, so I was pleased to learn that Fliss is working on her first novel, which I’ll be keen to read.
With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler for the e-copy for review.
Hearts & Bones: Love Songs for Late Youth by Niamh Mulvey (2022)
Having read these 10 stories over the course of a few months, I now struggle to remember what many of them were about. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s (young) women’s relationships. “My First Marina,” about a teenager discovering her sexual power and the potential danger of peer pressure in a friendship, is similar to the title story of Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz. In “Mother’s Day,” a woman hopes that a pregnancy will prompt a reconciliation between her and her estranged mother. In “Childcare,” a girl and her grandmother join forces against the mum/daughter, a would-be actress. “Currency” is in the second person, with the rest fairly equally split between first and third person. “The Doll” is an odd one about a ventriloquist’s dummy and repeats events from three perspectives.
I had two favourites: “Feathers” and “Good for You, Cecilia.” In the former, a woman rethinks her relationship with her boyfriend when the 2010 volcanic eruption restricts her to his French flat and she gets chatting with his cleaner. In the latter, a mother and daughter go to watch their daughter/sister’s dance recital in Dublin and witness the fall of a statue of St. Cecilia in a church they stop into. These are all matter-of-fact, somewhat detached stories set in European cities over the last decade or so. None of the protagonists had me particularly emotionally engaged with their plights. Overall, this felt reminiscent of Wendy Erskine’s work (I’ve reviewed Dance Move), but not as original or powerful.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Currently reading: Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, Playing Sardines by Michèle Roberts
Up next: The High Places by Fiona McFarlane, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Review Catch-Up: Capildeo, Castillo, Nagamatsu & Wedlich
A second catch-up for April. Today I have a sprightly poetry collection about history, language and nature; a linked short story collection that imagines funerary rituals and human meaning in a post-pandemic future; and a wide-ranging popular science book about the diverse connotations and practical uses of slime. As a bonus, I have a preview essay from a forthcoming collection about how reading promotes empathy and social justice.
Like a Tree, Walking by Vahni Capildeo (2021)
Capildeo is a nonbinary Trinidadian Scottish poet and the current University of York writer in residence. Their fourth collection is richly studded with imagery of the natural world, especially birds and trees. “In Praise of Birds” makes a gorgeous start:
“In praise of high-contrast birds, purple bougainvillea thicketing the golden oriole. … In praise of grackles quarrelling on the lawn. / In praise of unbeautiful birds abounding in Old Norse, language of scavenging ravens, thought and memory, a treacherous duo”
and finds a late echo in “In Praise of Trees”: “If I could have translated piano practice into botany, the lichen is that Mozart phrase my left hand trialled endlessly.”
The title section (named after a moment from the book of Mark) draws on several numbered series – “Walk #2,” “Nocturne #1,” “Lullaby 4,” and so on – that appeared in a pamphlet they published last year. These are not uncomplicated idylls, though. Walks might involve dull scenery and asthma-inducing dust, as well as danger: “If nobody has abducted you, I’ll double back to meet you. … Before raper-man corner and the gingerbread house.” Lullabies wish for good sleep despite lawnmowers and a neighbour shooting his guns. There’s more bold defiance of expectations in phrases like “This is the circus for dead horses only”.
Language is a key theme, with translations from the French of Eugène Ionesco, and of Pierre de Ronsard into Trini patois. There are also dual-language erasure poems after Dame Julian of Norwich (Middle English) and Simone Weil (French). Much of the work is based on engagement with literature, or was written in collaboration with performers.
“Death is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out. The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you! Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out. Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee, helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.” (from “Odyssey Response”)
“Windrush Reflections” impresses for its research into the situation of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. It’s one of a number of long, multipart pieces, some of them prose poems. The verse relies mostly on alliteration and anaphora for its sonic qualities. Along with history, there is reflection on current events, as in “Plague Poems.” Experiences of casual racism fuel one of my favourite passages:
“the doorbell was ringing / the downstairs american oxford neighbours / wanted to check / by chatting on the intercom / if i was doing terrorism / i was doing transcriptions” (from “Violent Triage”)
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)
“Things are bad in every generation. But we still have to live our life.”
This linked short story collection was one of my most anticipated books of the year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an Octavia E. Butler level of the latter that I can handle. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, it imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. In the first story, Cliff is on the ground at the start of the Arctic plague, which emerges from a thawing Siberia (the same setup as in Under the Blue!), where his late daughter, Clara, had been part of a research group that discovered a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal girl they named Annie.
The virus is highly transmissible and deadly, and later found to mostly affect children. In the following 13 stories (most about Asian Americans in California, plus a few set in Japan), the plague is a fact of life but has also prompted a new relationship to death – a major thread running through is the funerary rites that have arisen, everything from elegy hotels to “resomation.” In the stand-out story, the George Saunders-esque “City of Laughter,” Skip works at a euthanasia theme park whose roller coasters render ill children unconscious before stopping their hearts. He’s proud of his work, but can’t approach it objectively after he becomes emotionally involved with Dorrie and her son Fitch, who arrives in a bubble.
All but one of these stories are in the first person, so they feel like intimate testimonies of how a pandemic transforms existence. Almost all of the characters have experienced a bereavement, or are sick themselves. Relatives or acquaintances become protagonists in later stories. For instance, in “Pig Son,” Dorrie’s ex, David, is a scientist growing organs for transplantation. Bereavement coordinator Dennis and his doctor brother Bryan narrate #5 and #8, respectively. Six years on, Cliff’s wife Miki takes their granddaughter on a space mission. My other two favourites were “Through the Garden of Memory,” in which patients on a plague ward build a human pyramid and plot a sacrifice, and “Songs of Your Decay,” about a researcher at a forensic body farm who bonds with her one live donor over rock music.
Some stories are weaker or less original than others, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The focus on illness and death, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner for me. I’d be especially likely to recommend it to fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Russell.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (2021)
[Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu]
This is just the sort of wide-ranging popular science book that draws me in. Like Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a work I’ve had many opportunities to recommend even to those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, it incorporates many weird and wonderful facts about life forms we tend to overlook. Wedlich, a freelance science journalist in Germany, starts off at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where she seeks a sample of the “primordial slime” collected by the HMS Challenger in 1876. “It seems to be an unwritten rule of horror: slime sells!” she remarks – from H. P. Lovecraft to Ghostbusters, it has provoked disgust. Jellyfish, snails, frogs and carnivorous plants – you’re in for a sticky tour of the natural world.
The technical blanket term for slimy substances is “hydrogels,” which are 99% water and held together by polymers. Biological examples have been inspiring new technologies, like friction reducers (e.g. in fire hoses) modelled on fish mucus, novel adhesives to repair organs and seal wounds, and glue traps to remove microplastics. Looking to nature to aid our lives is nothing new, of course: Wedlich records that slugs were once used to lubricate cart wheels.
The book branches off in a lot of directions. You’ll hear about writers who were spellbound or terrified by marine life (Patricia Highsmith kept snails, while Jean-Paul Sartre was freaked out by sea creatures), the Victorian fascination with underwater life, the importance of the microbiome and the serious medical consequences of its dysfunction, and animals such as amphibians that live between land and water. At times it felt like the narrative jumped from one topic to another, especially between the biological and the cultural, without following a particular plan, but there are enough remarkable nuggets to hold the interest.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
I was delighted to be sent a preview pamphlet containing the author’s note and title essay of How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo, coming from Atlantic in August. This guide to cultural criticism – how to read anything, not just a book – is alive to the biased undertones of everyday life. “Anyone who is perfectly comfortable with keeping the world just as it is now and reading it the way they’ve always read it … cannot be trusted”. Castillo writes that it is not the job of people of colour to enlighten white people (especially not through “the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic” – war, genocide, tragedy, etc.); “if our stories primarily serve to educate, console and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers”. This is bold, provocative stuff. I’m sure to learn a lot.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Three on a Theme (and #ReadIndies): Nonfiction I Sponsored Last Year
Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.
Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:
This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist
A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.
This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.
Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)
Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills
I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”
The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.
As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)
- “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
- “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
- “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
- “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.
Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury
It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.
For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.
I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)
- “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
- “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
- “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
- “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
- My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)
“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”
Stay strong, trees!
Sponsored any books, or read any from indie publishers, recently?
Seasons’ Greetings: Winter (Part I) & Christmas Reading
My first few wintry reads for the season included a modern children’s classic, a wonderful poetry collection, and a so-so Advent-set novella. For my pre-Christmas reads, I have a couple of story-length classics and two recent novellas.
Winter Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
My favourite of the series so far (just Spring still to go) for how nostalgic it is for winter traditions.
“Tobogganing tomorrow,” said Wilfred.
“Snow pancakes for tea,” said Clover.
“We’ll make a snow mouse,” said Catkin.
The mice host a Snow Ball at the Ice Hall, with outfits and dances out of Austen and victuals out of Dickens. As always, the tree-trunk interiors are lit up like doll’s house tableaux with cosy rooms and well-stocked larders. Nothing much happens in this one, but that was fine with me: no need for a conflict and its resolution when you’ve got such a lovely, lucky life. (Public library)
The Winter Orchards by Nina Bogin (2001)
After enjoying Thousandfold in 2019, I was keen to catch up on Bogin’s previous poetry. Themes I’d noted in her latest work, nature and family, are key here, too. There is an overall wistful tone to the book, as in the passages below:
I didn’t like lungwort at first,
its spotted leaves, its furred
flowers, and I didn’t like its name.
But now I want to gather lungwort again,
now that I can’t return
to the brook meadow I picked it in (from “Lungwort”)
I’ll love the fallow and forgotten fields
because I have no choice, and woods
whose paths have been erased. (from “Landscape”)
The losses responded to are sometimes personal – saying Kaddish for her father – and sometimes more broadly representative, as when she writes about a dead bird found on the road or conflicts like the Gulf War and former Yugoslavia. Alongside beautiful nature poetry featuring birds and plants are vignettes from travels in France, Sweden, and upstate New York. (New purchase)
An Advent Calendar by Shena Mackay (1978)
I smugly started this on the first day of Advent, and initially enjoyed Mackay’s macabre habit of taking elements of the Nativity scene or a traditional Christmas and giving them a seedy North London twist. So we open on a butcher’s shop and a young man wearing “bloody swabbing cloths” rather than swaddling clothes, having lost a finger to the meat mincer (and later we see “a misty Christmas postman with his billowy sack come out of the abattoir’s gates”). In this way, John Wood becomes an unwitting cannibal after taking a parcel home from the butcher’s that day, and can’t forget about it as he moves his temporarily homeless family into his old uncle’s house and continues halfheartedly in his job as a cleaner. His wife has an affair; so does a teenage girl at the school where his sister works. No one is happy and everything is sordid. “Scouring powder snowed” and the animal at this perverse manger scene is the uncle’s neglected goat. This novella is soon read, but soon forgotten. (Secondhand purchase)
And so to Christmas…
“The Christmas Dinner” by Washington Irving (1820)
An evocative portrait of an English Christmas meal, hosted by a squire in the great hall of his manor, originally published in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A boar’s head, a mummers’ play, the Lord of Misrule: you couldn’t get much more traditional. “Master Simon covered himself with glory by the stateliness with which, as Ancient Christmas, he walked a minuet with the peerless, though giggling, Dame Mince Pie.” Irving’s narrator knows this little tale isn’t profound or intellectually satisfying, but hopes it will raise a smile. He also has a sense that he is recording something that might soon pass away:
I felt also an interest in the scene, from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion. … There was a quaintness, too, mingled with all this revelry, that gave it a peculiar zest; it was suited to the time and place; and as the old Manor House almost reeled with mirth and wassail, it seemed echoing back the joviality of long-departed years.
A pleasant one-sitting read; so much better than a Christmas card!
This Renard Press pamphlet is in support of Three Peas, a charity providing food and medical care to refugees in Europe. Thanks to Annabel for my gifted copy!
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)
Always, Christmas brought out the best and the worst in people.
This was our second most popular read during last month’s Novellas in November challenge. I’d read a lot about it in fellow bloggers’ posts and newspaper reviews so knew to expect a meticulously chiselled and heartwarming story about a coal merchant in 1980s Ireland who comes to value his quiet family life all the more when he sees how difficult existence is for the teen mothers sent to work in the local convent’s laundry service. Born out of wedlock himself nearly 40 years ago, he is grateful that his mother received kindness and wishes he could do more to help the desperate girls he meets when he makes deliveries to the convent.
I found this a fairly predictable narrative, and the nuns are cartoonishly villainous. So I wasn’t as enthusiastic as many others have been, but still enjoyed having this as one of my reads on my travel day to the USA. I was familiar with the Magdalene Laundries from the movie The Magdalene Sisters and found this a touching reminder to be grateful for what you have while helping those less fortunate. A perfect message for Christmas. (NetGalley)
Miss Marley by Vanessa Lafaye (2018)
Lafaye was a local-ish author to me, an American expat living in Marlborough. When she died of breast cancer in 2018, she left this A Christmas Carol prequel unfinished, and fellow historical novelist Rebecca Mascull completed it for her. Clara and Jacob Marley come from money but end up on the streets, stealing from the rich to get by. Jacob sets himself up as a moneylender to the poor and then, after serving an apprenticeship alongside Ebenezer Scrooge, goes into business with him. They are a bad influence on each other, reinforcing each other’s greed and hard hearts. Jacob is determined never to be poor again. Because he’s forgotten what it’s like, he has no compassion when Clara falls in love with a luckless Scottish tea merchant. Like Scrooge, Jacob is offered one final chance to mend his ways. This was easy and pleasant reading, but I did wonder if there was a point to reading this when one could just reread Dickens’s original. (Secondhand purchase)
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas (1952)
(Illus. Edward Ardizzone, 1978)
It’s a wonder I’d never managed to read this short story before. I was prepared for something slightly twee; instead, it is sprightly and imaginative, full of unexpected images and wordplay. In the Wales of his childhood, there were wolves and bears and hippos. Young boys could get up to all sorts of mischief, but knew that a warm house packed with relatives and a cosy bed awaited at the end of a momentous day. Reflective and magical in equal measure; a lovely wee volume that I am sure to reread year after year. (Little Free Library)
A favourite passage:
Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.
If there’s been one adjective linking most of these books, it’s been “nostalgic.” There’s something about winter in general, and the holiday season in particular, that lends itself to thinking back to the past and trying to preserve traditions, isn’t there?
What’s on your holiday reading pile this year?
Talking to the Dead x 2: Helen Dunmore and Elaine Feinstein
My fourth title-based dual review post this year (after Ex Libris, The Still Point and How Not to Be Afraid), with Betty vs. Bettyville to come in December if I can manage them both. Today I have an early Helen Dunmore novel about the secrets binding a pair of sisters and an Elaine Feinstein poetry collection written after the loss of her husband. Their shared title seemed appropriate as Halloween approaches. Both:
Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)
Nina, a photographer, has travelled to stay with her sister in Sussex after the birth of Isabel’s first child, Antony. A house full of visitors, surrounded by an unruly garden, is perfect for concealment. A current secret trades off with one from deep in the sisters’ childhood: their baby brother Colin’s death, which they remember differently. Antony and Colin function like doubles, with the sisters in subtle competition for ownership of the past and present. This was a delicious read: as close as literary fiction gets to a psychological thriller, dripping with sultry summer atmosphere and the symbols of aphrodisiac foods and blowsy flowers. From the novel’s title and opening pages, you have an inkling of what’s to come, but it still hits hard when it does. Impossible to say more about the plot without spoiling it, so just know that it’s a suspenseful story of sisters with Tessa Hadley, Maggie O’Farrell and Polly Samson vibes. I hadn’t much enjoyed my first taste of Dunmore’s fiction (Exposure), but I’m very glad that Susan’s enthusiasm spurred me to pick this up. (Secondhand purchase, Honesty bookshop outside the Castle, Hay-on-Wye)
Talking to the Dead by Elaine Feinstein (2007)
Much like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, my top poetry release of last year, this is a tender and playful response to a beloved spouse’s death. The short verses are in stanzas and incorporate the occasional end rhyme and spot of alliteration as Feinstein marshals images and memories to recreate her husband’s funeral and moments from their marriage and travels beforehand and her widowhood afterwards – including moving out of their shared home. The poems flow so easily and beautifully from one to another; I’d happily read much more from Feinstein. This was her 13th poetry collection; before her death in 2019, she also wrote many novels, stories, biographies and translations. I’ll leave you with a poem suitable for the run-up to the Day of the Dead. (Secondhand purchase, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)
Does one or both of these appeal to you?
Review and Q&A: Those Fantastic Lives by Bradley Sides
Bradley Sides and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine in 2014–15 and I’ve been following his career ever since. I was delighted to get early access to his debut short story collection, Those Fantastic Lives (out today from Blacklight Press), which was an ideal transition for me from September’s short story focus to October’s R.I.P. challenge for how it blends the genres of dystopia, horror, and magic realism with literary writing.
Many of the protagonists in these 17 stories are orphans or children who have lost one parent. Grief uproots them, leaves them questing; combine their loneliness with dashes of the supernatural and you have perfect situations for strange and wonderful things to happen. So in the title story we have Sam, who at eight longs to follow in his psychic grandmother’s footsteps. In the achingly beautiful “Dolls for the End of the World,” young Patrick’s empathy somehow makes the apocalypse more bearable. In “The Hunt,” 10-year-old Zoey is obsessed with finding a sasquatch, while “In the Hollow” Walt trusts wolf-like creatures to lead him to his dead mother.
“Commencement,” in a first-person plural voice, is the creepiest of the lot, documenting preparations for graduation at a special academy. To be named the class valedictorian is an enduring yet dubious honor… But there are flashes of humor in the book as well. For instance, the lighthearted werewolf story “A Complicated Correspondence” is told via a series of increasingly convoluted e-mails. These two and “Back in Crowville,” in which scarecrows are used to scare off ghosts, too, struck me as perfect Halloween reading. I’d particularly recommend the book to readers of Kelly Link and Lydia Millet.
Brad and I had a chat over e-mail about his inspiration, themes and publication process.
Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?
Almost all of the stories I write come to me initially as a vision. I don’t mean in a dream or anything that dramatic, but I might be walking and see a stream, and suddenly that stream is placed in another world, and the stakes are much, much higher. Once I see my characters or my setting or my situation, I have to write a story that leads up to the moment I’m seeing. Writing and creating is, for me, a very internalized process.
Titles are so hard for me. I wish this weren’t the case, but I never write with titles in mind. Sometimes I’ll have the story ready, and I might have to wait weeks before I come to the right title. In regards to writing, I think I’m the worst at titling.
I think my favorite line in the book might be “Just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it’s gone.” That’s from “The Comet Seekers,” about a pair of brothers in search of their father. A number of the stories feature children who have lost a guardian. How does bereavement alter the course of these coming-of-age narratives?
I’m so interested in loss in general. In life, we lose things. As kids. As adults. It doesn’t stop. I grew up on a farm, and animals died constantly. Chickens were slaughtered by foxes. Ducks were killed on their nests by turtles. Cows were sold and slaughtered. Pets died. Loss was everywhere. I’ve always thought about it. I guess, in many ways, loss haunts me.
I feel like bereavement and orphanhood create tension in many of my stories, but they also serve to add stakes to my characters’ lives. It’s tough to keep losing. Sometimes, you’ll do anything to keep from experiencing that—or to try to keep from experiencing that, at least. There’s power there.
I imagine that, like sequencing an album, choosing the order of the stories was a pleasurable challenge. How did you decide on the structure of the book – the opening story, the closing story; the themes running into or contrasting with each other; transitions; and so on?
It was a fun process to start putting all of my work together. I mean, it was also a little stressful once I got near the end and was getting ready to send Those Fantastic Lives out, but it was still fun. I have written a lot of stories, but for my collection, I wanted to only include the stories I love the most. I cut and cut based on just pure writerly love first—and gut instinct, I suppose. Once I had it narrowed, I started looking closely at themes. I removed a handful that felt like they didn’t belong. I really like slim collections (and slim books in general), so I wanted something relatively short—something less than 200 pages. The strangest thing I did was that I read the collection aloud. SEVERAL times, too. If a story didn’t fit the sound, I cut it. I really wanted to put out a cohesive collection, and I think (hope?) I’ve done that with these seventeen stories.
I loved how elements recurred in later tales – for instance, in both “Losing Light” and “The Mooneaters” characters consume sources of light and glow from the inside, and “What They Left Behind” connects back to “The Mooneaters” in that a character starts to sprout feathers. How do you account for these pervasive images?
This is probably a terrible response to such a great question, but it’s the truth: I look at the sky a lot. As in, probably way beyond what is normal. When I walk my dog, I look up at the morning sky and think about the clouds and the rising sun. When my wife and I are out on the porch in the evenings, I look up and think about the approaching stars. The coming moon. Whether early or late, the birds are always around, flying to wherever it is they go. I am so amazed by and curious of the sky. It’s such a beautiful, mysterious place that hovers above us, and it’s kind of the perfect space for me to root a lot of the fantastical elements of my stories.
In my favorite story, “The Galactic Healers,” Lian makes contact with aliens who offer a therapeutic balm. His suspicious father takes the medicine by force – a plan that quickly backfires. To what extent might this one be read as a parable of colonial exploitation and toxic masculinity?
I’m so glad you liked “The Galactic Healers,” Rebecca. It is one of my favorites, too. I’m naturally drawn, just as a human and not even necessarily speaking as a writer, to the topics you mention. I think about otherness. What it means to be outside or different. In that same way, I think about tender versus toxic behavior. I think the reading you have of the story is definitely a good one. And it probably captures where I was, in my head, at that time.
I sensed shades of Karen Russell and George Saunders. Who are some of your favorite writers, and who would you cite as inspirations for the collection?
I love Karen Russell and George Saunders both. I’m honored that my work reminds you of their writing. I think they are both influences on my fiction. I’m also inspired by Ray Bradbury a lot. I’m a very visual creator, so television writers also serve as huge inspirations for me. Mike Flanagan’s work (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor) haunts me, and I love it.
Versions of 12 of the stories previously appeared in various publications. What has your experience been of getting your work into literary magazines?
Getting published in literary magazines is an exhausting process. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary one and one that gives me a lot of joy in the long run, but it’s also tough. I write weird stuff. Not every magazine wants a story about glowing monsters or a tiny kid whose home planet was invaded by giants and now lives on an ice cube. Finding the right magazine takes time, and even when I think I’ve found the right place, I’m sometimes wrong. I submit, hope for the best, and keep submitting. Usually, most of my stories wind up finding homes in the first five or so magazines I submit them to, but that’s not always the case. With “What They Left Behind,” for example, I bet I sent that story to twenty or thirty magazines before I found the perfect match at Crow & Cross Keys. Although it took some time to land at its home, it found its PERFECT home.
These stories were seven years in the making. What was your road to publication like, and how did you land at Blacklight Press?
Like many yet-to-publish-a-book writers, I was constantly searching for publication information as I was reaching the end of my writing cycle for Those Fantastic Lives, and I kept encountering these articles about how long and tough the publication process can be. I was prepared for it to take years before I found a press willing to take on my collection.
Once it was ready, I sent Those Fantastic Lives out to a handful of publishers—all of which I’d found out about with basic web searches. A couple were interested, but the offer wasn’t what I was looking for. A couple showed interest, but ultimately passed. Blacklight landed, and I knew it was what I was looking for very early on.
The process of when I began to when I found my publisher was probably less than six months.
The whole team at Blacklight has been fantastic, too. It’s really been a dream experience. I feel very grateful.
In your day job, you teach English and creative writing to high schoolers. What are some of the most important lessons you hope your students will take away from your classes, and what have you learned from them?
I hope, more than anything, that my students learn that their words—and their stories—matter. If they truly put themselves into their work, it is art, and it is important. I also hope they leave my classroom knowing how important respect is. To other writers. To themselves. To their eventual readers. To people in general. Respect is key.
I’ve learned so much from my creative writing students. They inspire me. They motivate me. Seeing their excitement when they write something they are proud of reminds me why I write in the first place. They are also wonderfully eager readers. I love discussing stories with them and learning how they perceive texts. Creative writing classes are treasured places.
What are you working on next?
Earlier this year, I began working on my next set of stories. I’m a slow writer. Maybe a very slow writer. With it being so early in the process, it’s hard to say exactly what the next collection will look like, but I do think I’ll largely stay focused on the same kinds of themes. Loss, loneliness, and transformation are naturally interesting to me. There’ll be more experimentation with form. A story in the shape of a manual. A gameplay story. A transcript. A flash in questions. There’ll be plenty of magical weirdness, too, with, probably, pond monsters, apocalypses, a shark boy, kidnapping ghosts, and who knows what else. I just hope it won’t take me so long to write this second book!