I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn
Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”
In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.
Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.
With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.
Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock
Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.
It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.
This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall
[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]
Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.
Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.
With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.
You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.
With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Everything was in its place.
along designated rails.
Even the arranged meeting
In paradise lost
From “Railway station” by Wisława Szymborska
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
From “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop
This is not your average memoir. For one thing, it ends with 34 pages of notes and bibliography. Sophie Ratcliffe is an associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, and it’s clear that her life and the narrative have been indelibly shaped by literature. In this work of creative nonfiction she is particularly interested in the lives and works of Leo Tolstoy and Anthony Trollope and the women they loved. For another, the book is based around train journeys – real and fictional, remembered and imagined. Trains are appropriate symbols for many of the book’s dichotomies: scheduling versus unpredictability, having or lacking a direction in life, monotony versus momentous events, and fleeting versus lasting connections.
Each chapter, marked with a location and a year, functions as a mini-essay; as the nonchronological pieces accrete you develop a sense of what have been the most important elements of Ratcliffe’s life. One was her father’s death from cancer when she was 13, an early loss that inevitably affected the years that followed. Another was a love affair with a married photographer 30 years her senior. A number of chapters are addressed directly to this ex-lover in the second person. Although they’ve had no contact since she got married, she still thinks about him – and wonders if she’ll have a right to mourn him when he dies.
Could she have been his muse, as Kate Field was for Trollope? Field appeared in fictional guises in much of his work and thereby inspired Anna Karenina, for Tolstoy was a devoted reader of Trollope and gave his heroine a penchant for reading English novels, too. Ratcliffe seems to see herself in Anna, a wife and mother who longs for a life of her own: she writes of her love for her two children but also of the boredom that comes with motherhood’s minutiae.
Much of life’s daily tedium is bound up in physical objects, like the random objects that litter the cover. “I am a lover of small things – and of clutter,” Ratcliffe confesses. She notes that generations of literary critics have asked what was in the red handbag Anna Karenina left behind, too. What does such lost property say about its owner? What can be saved from a life in which loss is so prevalent? These are questions the book explores through its metaphors, stories and memories. It ends with the hope that writing things down gives them meaning.
If you enjoy nonstandard memoirs (like Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You) and books about how what we read makes us who we are (such as Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm), you have a real treat in store here.
Some favorite lines:
“Life is in the between-ness, the space in the margins – not in the headlines.”
“Books, like trains, are another way of tricking time, of moving to a different beat, a different space.”
“Has my reading been a way of keeping me company – of helping me through the worlds of nearlys and barelys and the feelings of missing, and the hopeless messiness?”
“Writing is better than nothing. Better than thin air.”
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
I first heard of the author when she was a Wellcome Book Prize judge in 2018. I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for The Lost Properties of Love.
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that nominations come from The Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, and any book written in English is eligible, so there’s nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction on this year’s varied shortlist of eight titles:
- Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young [essays]
- The Crossway by Guy Stagg [travel memoir]
- Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly [historical fiction]
- Milkman by Anna Burns [literary fiction]
- Ordinary People by Diana Evans [literary fiction]
- The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus [poetry]
- There There by Tommy Orange [literary fiction]
- West by Carys Davies [historical fiction]
I’m helping to kick off the Prize’s social media tour by championing the debut poetry collection The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (winner of the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Award from the Poetry Society), issued by the London publisher Penned in the Margins last year. Antrobus is a British-Jamaican poet with an MA in Spoken Word Education who has held multiple residencies in London schools and works as a freelance teacher and poet. His poems dwell on the uneasiness of bearing a hybrid identity – he’s biracial and deaf but functional in the hearing world – and reflect on the loss of his father and the intricacies of Deaf history.
I was previously unaware of the difference between “deaf” and “Deaf,” but it’s explained in the book’s endnotes: Deaf refers to those who are born deaf and learn sign before any spoken language, so they tend to consider deafness part of their cultural identity; deaf means that the deafness was acquired later in life and is a medical consequence rather than a defining trait.
The opening poem, “Echo,” recalls how Antrobus’s childhood diagnosis came as a surprise because hearing problems didn’t run in the family.
I sat in saintly silence
during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached
The Good News I only heard
as Babylon’s babbling echoes.
Nowadays he uses hearing aids and lip reading, but still frets about how much he might be missing, as expressed in the prose poem “I Move through London like a Hotep” (his mishearing when a friend said, “I’m used to London life with no sales tax”). But if he had the choice, would Antrobus reverse his deafness? As he asks himself in one stanza of “Echo,” “Is paradise / a world where / I hear everything?”
Learning how to live between two worlds is a major theme of the collection, applying not just to the Deaf and hearing communities but also to the balancing act of a Black British identity. I first encountered Antrobus through the recent Black British poetry anthology Filigree (I assess it as part of a review essay in an upcoming issue of Wasafiri literary magazine), which reprints his poem “My Mother Remembers.” A major thread in that volume is art as a means of coming to terms with racism and constructing an individual as well as a group identity. The ghazal “Jamaican British” is the clearest articulation of that fight for selfhood, reinforced by later poems on being called a foreigner and harassment by security staff at Miami airport.
The title comes from the name of the pub where Antrobus’s father drank while his son waited outside. The title poem is an elegant sestina in which “perseverance” is the end word of one line per stanza. The relationship with his father is a connecting thread in the book, culminating in the several tender poems that close the book. Here he remembers caring for his father, who had dementia, in the final two years of his life, and devotes a final pantoum to the childhood joy of reading aloud with him.
A number of poems broaden the perspective beyond the personal to give a picture of early Deaf history. Several mention Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife and mother were both deaf, while in one the ghost of Laura Bridgeman (the subject of Kimberly Elkins’s excellent novel What Is Visible) warns Helen Keller about the unwanted fame that comes with being a poster child for disability. The poet advocates a complete erasure of Ted Hughes’s offensive “Deaf School” (sample lines: “Their faces were alert and simple / Like faces of little animals”; somewhat ironically, Antrobus went on to win the Ted Hughes Award last month!) and bases the multi-part “Samantha” on interviews with a Deaf Jamaican woman who moved to England in the 1980s. The text also includes a few sign language illustrations, including numbers that mark off section divisions.
The Perseverance is an issues book that doesn’t resort to polemic; a bereavement memoir that never turns overly sentimental; and a bold statement of identity that doesn’t ignore complexities. Its mixture of classical forms and free verse, the historical and the personal, makes it ideal for those relatively new to poetry, while those who enjoy the sorts of poets he quotes and tips the hat to (like Kei Miller, Danez Smith and Derek Walcott) will find a resonant postcolonial perspective.
A favorite passage from “Echo” (I’m a sucker for alliteration):
the ravelled knot of tongues,
of blaring birds, consonant crumbs
of dull doorbells, sounds swamped
in my misty hearing aid tubes.
The winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize will be announced on May 20th.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely
I come from a certain American state: Maryland. Before I first came to England 15 years ago, I’d never lived anywhere else. It’s the ninth-smallest state but has a little bit of everything – mountains, lakes and farmland; coast and bayfront; rough cities and pleasant towns; plus proximity to the nation’s capital – which is why it’s nicknamed “America in Miniature.” Brits say Merry-Land (it’s more like the name Marilyn, with a faint D on the end) and more than once when asked where I’m from I’ve heard in reply,“like the cookies?” No, not like the cookies!
Anyway, the characters in Catherine Lacey’s short story collection move through various states – Texas, North Dakota, Virginia, Montana – but the focus is more on their emotional states. Ten of the 12 stories are in the first person, giving readers a deep dive into the psyches of damaged or bereaved people. I particularly liked “ur heck box,” in which the narrator, troubled by the death of her brother and wary of her mother joining her in New York City, starts getting garbled messages from a deaf man. Whether a result of predictive text errors or mental illness, these notes on his phone echo her confusion at what’s become of her life.
Two other favorites were “Touching People,” in which a sixty-something woman takes a honeymooning couple to see her ex-husband’s grave, and “Small Differences,” about a woman who’s cat-sitting for her on-and-off boyfriend and remembers the place faith used to have in her life. Both dramatize the divide between youth and age; in the latter the cat is named Echo, a reminder that the past still resonates. Another standout is “Learning,” about a painting teacher with a crumbling house and marriage whose deadbeat college friend has become a parenting guru. (This one reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “The Prairie Wife.”)
Many of the stories question the possibility of ‘getting over’ what’s happened and posit, instead of total healing, a stoic determination to just keep going. In the title story, the narrator goes to see her godfather, Leonard, on his deathbed. She still doesn’t like him much; the trip isn’t about achieving closure but doing the right thing when you can. The same is true in “Family Physics”: Bridget had an explosive falling-out with her family when they came to see her accept her college Physics Award. Now that she’s back in touch with them everything isn’t perfect, but she sees how family life is always a mixture of entropy and rebuilding.
There isn’t as much variety to the narration as I often like from a set of stories, but Lacey uses a range of storytelling techniques (or gimmicks, if one was being unkind) to keep things interesting. The first story, “Violations,” about a man whose ex-wife has published a story drawing on their life together, features run-on sentences that go over the page; “ur heck box” nests parentheses inside parentheses, up to three layers; “Because You Have To,” about a woman who’s counting her blessings even though she’s newly single and surrounded by feral pets, is in short sections separated by asterisks; and “The Four Immeasurables and Twenty New Immeasurables,” narrated by a woman who’s sleeping with a Buddhist monk, is in list form. Lacey also uses no speech marks, setting out dialogue in italics instead.
It can be tough to assess a story collection as a whole because the parts can range from hard-hitting to instantly forgettable. I didn’t always feel that each of the parts was necessary here; perhaps I would have been better off just sampling a few of the best stories? The problem, of course, is that you never know which those would be for you before you open up the book. There were quite a number of lines that rang true for me in Lacey’s work, but no more than a few stories that I can imagine myself recalling or ever going back to in the future. The book feels very much of the moment, though. If you’ve enjoyed recent work by Julie Buntin, R. O. Kwon, Sally Rooney or Sittenfeld, you might want to spend time in Certain American States.
“I don’t know what to do now, a state I am so familiar with it feels like my only true home.” (from “Because You Have To”)
“Anyone can visit a graveyard, no matter what they think, and every graveyard has been seen so many times there is nothing left in them for anyone to see and that is why we all must go and look, to see again what’s been seen again” (from “Touching People”)
“I no longer understand the state I was in back then (heartsick over the idea of Jesus the way that other girls were heartsick over the idea of River Phoenix)” (from “Small Differences”)
Certain American States was published in the UK by Granta on September 6th; it came out in the USA on August 7th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and there could be no better primer for reluctant poetry readers than William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy. Consider it the verse equivalent of Berthoud and Elderkin’s The Novel Cure: an accessible and inspirational guide that suggests the right piece at the right time to help heal a particular emotional condition.
Sieghart, a former chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel, founded the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992 and National Poetry Day itself in 1994. He’s active in supporting public libraries and charities, but he’s also dedicated to giving personal poetry prescriptions, and has taken his Poetry Pharmacy idea to literary festivals, newspapers and radio programs.
Under five broad headings, this short book covers everything from Anxiety and Convalescence to Heartbreak and Regret. I most appreciated the discussion of slightly more existential states, such as Feelings of Unreality, for which Sieghart prescribes a passage from John Burnside’s “Of Gravity and Light,” about the grounding Buddhist monks find in menial tasks. Pay attention to life’s everyday duties, the poem teaches, and higher insights will come.
I also particularly enjoyed Julia Darling’s “Chemotherapy”—
I never thought that life could get this small,
that I would care so much about a cup,
the taste of tea, the texture of a shawl,
and whether or not I should get up.
and “Although the wind” by Izumi Shikibu:
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Sieghart has chosen a great variety of poems in terms of time period and register. Rumi and Hafez share space with Wendy Cope and Maya Angelou. Of the 56 poems, I’d estimate that at least three-quarters are from the twentieth century or later. At times the selections are fairly obvious or clichéd (especially “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” for Bereavement), and the choice of short poems or excerpts seems to pander to short attention spans. So populist is the approach that Sieghart warns Keats is the hardest of all. I also thought there should have been a strict one poem per poet rule; several get two or even three entries.
If put in the right hands, though, this book will be an ideal introduction to the breadth of poetry out there. It would be a perfect Christmas present for the person in your life who always says they wish they could appreciate poetry but just don’t know where to start or how to understand it. Readers of a certain age may get the most out of the book, as a frequently recurring message is that it’s never too late to change one’s life and grow in positive ways.
“What people need more than comfort is to be given a different perspective on their inner turmoil. They need to reframe their narrative in a way that leaves room for happiness and gratitude,” Sieghart writes. Poetry is a perfect way to look slantwise at truth (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) and change your perceptions about life. If you’re new to poetry, pick this up at once; if you’re an old hand, maybe buy it for someone else and have a quick glance through to discover a new poet or two.
My thanks to Particular Books for the free copy for review.
Do you turn to poetry when you’re struggling with life? Does it help?
Books I’ve read and enjoyed:
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
Currently reading: Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
On the TBR:
- Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky
- How to Read a Poem by Molly Peacock
Today, July 7th, happens to be my ninth wedding anniversary. For Michel Faber, however, it marks a more somber occasion: two years since his wife, Eva, died of cancer. They met in 1988 and got to spend over 25 years together. It was a second marriage for Eva, a visual artist – a bohemian life full of travel and each working on their art, until a six-year battle with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) cut Eva down in her fifties.
Faber’s new book, Undying: A Love Story, is a striking outpouring of 67 poems, most of them written in 2014–15, after Eva died. In two halves, it takes up first Eva’s illness and death, and then the aftermath and memories. Faber gives a vivid sense of how completely cancer changed both their lives: “There were three of us in our marriage. / You, me, and your cancer.” Eva’s illness put everything into perspective: “In our former lives, B.C., / all sorts of issues seemed to matter – / like minor wastes of money, and a scarcity / of storage space.”
The poems vary widely in stanza length and style. With only a few exceptions, they are in the first person – “I” and “we” – and addressed directly to Eva as “you,” even after she was gone. In one of my favorites, “You Loved to Dance,” Faber remembers the rare occasions in their relationship when they danced together and shakes his head over lost opportunities: “A thousand chances that we didn’t take. … Half a dozen dances in a quarter-century. / I doubt you thought that that was all there’d be.”
Although this is mostly free verse, the occasional rhyming couplet ends a poem:
Yes, let us not leave off praying.
Not for God our soul to keep
but just to die, of old age, in our sleep.
Wake-up call. You’re dead another day.
The hotel hopes I have enjoyed my stay.
As you can see from those last lines, the tone is gently sardonic. Faber’s strategy is often to hold up physical artifacts of Eva’s life – the hundreds of menstrual pads she’d accumulated, only to go through early menopause (“Change Of Life”); the odd foodstuffs he found in their cupboards after her death and tried to use up (“Tamarind”) – and turn them to gently mocking commentary on all the futile plans we make. Most ironic of all is “Or, If Only,” in which he catalogues all the ways life can kill you when you don’t want it to, whereas by the end Eva longed for an easy way out: “We’d jump at any offer. / Any speedy death would do us.”
In subject matter and tone I would liken these poems to Christian Wiman’s and Christopher Reid’s. Wiman is a poet and theologian who has himself been through the trenches – long, painful years of treatment for blood cancer. Christopher Reid’s A Scattering is a poetic reflection on his wife Lucinda’s death from a brain tumor. Though you can sense the rich emotion in the poems of Undying, Faber doesn’t quite match either of these authors for craft. His talent is better suited to the expansive world of a novel like The Crimson Petal and the White.
I was thus dismayed to read in this book’s publicity materials that Faber does not intend to write any more fiction – “[Eva’s] death is a major factor in his decision not to write any further novels. A talented artist, she set aside her career to help further his, despite his protestations – and he is dedicating much of the rest of his life to making her work better known.” Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things was one of my most memorable reads from 2014. The story of an interplanetary missionary separated from his wife, it takes on new ache when you realize Faber was writing it in the shadow of his own wife’s death. If, indeed, it was to be his last novel, it’s appropriate that it gives such a poignant portrait of a marriage.
I’ll keep hoping that Faber writes more fiction. In the meantime, any fan of his writing should get hold of these tender, elegiac poems.
All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.