Tag Archives: biography

November Releases: Dickens and Prince, Bratwurst Haven, Routes

Here are a few November books I read early for review, or that didn’t quite fit into the month’s other challenges – although, come to think of it, all are technically of novella length! (Come back tomorrow for a roundup of all the random novellas I’ve finished late in the month, and on Thursday for a retrospective of this year’s Novellas in November.)

 

Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby

This exuberant essay, a paean to energy and imagination, draws unexpected connections between two of Hornby’s heroes. Both came from poverty, skyrocketed to fame in their twenties, were astoundingly prolific/workaholic artists, valued performance perhaps more highly than finished products, felt the industry was cheating them, had a weakness for women and died at a similar age. Biographical research shares the page with shrewd cultural commentary and glimpses of Hornby’s writing life. Whether a fan of both subjects, either or none, you’ll surely admire these geniuses’ vitality, too. (Full review forthcoming in the December 30th issue of Shelf Awareness.)

 

Bratwurst Haven: Stories by Rachel King

In a dozen gritty linked short stories, lovable, flawed characters navigate aging, parenthood, and relationships. Set in Colorado in the recent past, the book depicts a gentrifying area where blue-collar workers struggle to afford childcare and health insurance. As Gus, their boss at St. Anthony Sausage, withdraws their benefits and breaks in response to a recession, it’s unclear whether the business will survive. Each story covers the perspective of a different employee. The connections between tales are subtle. Overall, an endearing composite portrait of a working-class community in transition. (See my full review for Foreword.)

 

Routes by Rhiya Pau

Pau’s ancestors were part of the South Asian diaspora in East Africa, and later settled in the UK. Her debut, which won one of this year’s Eric Gregory Awards (from the Society of Authors, for a collection by a British poet under the age of 30), reflects on that stew of cultures and languages. Colours and food make up the lush metaphorical palette.

When I was small, I spoke two languages.

At school: proper English, pruned and prim,

tip of the tongue taps roof of the mouth,

delicate lips, like lace frilling rims of my white

 

cotton socks. At home, a heady brew:

Gujarati Hindi Swahili

swim in my mouth, tie-dye my tongue

with words like bandhani.

Alongside loads of alliteration (my most adored poetic technique)—

My goddess is a mother in marigold garland

—there are delightfully unexpected turns of phrase, almost synaesthetic in their blending of the senses:

right as I worry I have forgotten the scent

of grief, I catch the first blossom of the season

 

and we are back circling the Spring.

~

I am a chandelier of possibility.

Besides family history and Hindu theology, current events and politics are sources of inspiration. For instance, “We Gotta Talk About S/kincare” explores the ironies and nuances of attitudes towards Black and Brown public figures, e.g., lauding Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, but former UK Home Secretary Priti Patel? “our forever – guest of honour / would deport her own mother – if she could.” I also loved the playfulness with structure: “Ode to Corelle” employs a typically solemn form for a celebration of crockery, while the yoga-themed “Salutation” snakes across two pages like a curving spine. This reminded me of poetry I’ve enjoyed by other young Asian women: Romalyn Ante, Cynthia Miller, Nina Mingya Powles and Jenny Xie. A fantastic first book.

With thanks to Arachne Press for the proof copy for review.

 

Any more November releases you can recommend?

Fair Play by Tove Jansson (#NovNov22 Translated Week)

Apart from A Winter Book and The Summer Book, I’m still new to Tove Jansson’s writing for adults, having become most familiar with her Moomins series over the last 11 years. This is a late work, first published in 1989 but not available in English translation (by Thomas Teal; published by Sort Of Books, with an introduction by Ali Smith) until 2007.

Rather like a linked short story collection, it presents vignettes from the lives of two female artists – Mari, a writer and illustrator; and Jonna, a visual artist and filmmaker – who are long-term, devoted partners. Of course, this cannot be read as other than autobiographical of Jansson and her partner of 45 years, Tuulikki Pietilä. There are other specific details drawn from life, too.

What the book does beautifully is recreate the rhythm of life lived alongside another person. The two women have studio space at either end of a large apartment building and meet to watch films (the subject of “Videomania”) and go on trips. Each other’s work is a background hum if no longer a daily keeping-to-task.

Not a lot happens, so not too much stood out; a couple of other favourite stories were “Wladyslaw,” about welcoming a Polish refugee friend, and “In the Great City of Phoenix,” about a stop at an Arizona hotel. The final piece, “The Letter,” however, does present an imminent change: one of the partners is invited on a foreign fellowship and love means a temporary letting go. (Public library)

[127 pages]

 


I also recently read a forthcoming artistic/biographical study of Tove Jansson for Shelf Awareness, to be released by Thames & Hudson on December 6th. As it is also novella-length, it’s a good link between our literature in translation week and next week’s nonfiction focus. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

 

Tove Jansson: The Illustrators by Paul Gravett

This potted biography of the author best known for the Moomins showcases the development of her artistic style and literary themes. Born at the start of World War I into a family of artists (her father a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer, her brother Lars a collaborator on her comics), Jansson wanted to paint but had limited opportunities as a woman. The book contains a wealth of illustrations – over 100, so nearly one per page – including photographs and high-quality reproductions, many in color and some in black and white, of Jansson’s comics, paintings and book covers. Gravett also probes the autobiographical influences on Jansson’s work, which are particularly clear in her 15 books for adults. A sensitive portrayal of Finland’s most widely translated author, this is itself a work of art.

[112 pages]

Review Book Catch-Up: Dennis, Galloway, Leland-St. John and Sampson

Capsule reviews today, of four books I am inexcusably late in reviewing. I have a record of personal experience with species reintroductions, a memoir about living among reindeer herders in the far north of Norway, a set of elegiac poems, and a biography of a Victorian woman poet who struggled with poor health for most of her life.

 

Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways by Roy Dennis

Rewilding is a big buzz word in current nature and environmental writing. Few could be said to have played as major a role in the UK’s successful species reintroduction projects as Roy Dennis, who has been involved with the RSPB and other key organizations since the late 1950s. He trained as a warden at two of the country’s most famous bird observatories, Lundy Island and Fair Isle. Most of his later work was to focus on birds: white-tailed eagles, red kites, and ospreys. Some of these projects extended into continental Europe. He also writes about the special challenges posed by mammal reintroductions; beavers get a chapter of their own. Every initiative is described in exhaustive detail, full of names and dates, whereas I would have been okay with an overview. This feels like more of an insider’s history rather than a layman’s introduction. I have popped it on my husband’s bedside table in hopes that, with his degree in wildlife conservation, he’ll be more interested in the nitty-gritty.

Favourite lines:

“Tenacity and a long view to the future are important in wildlife conservation.”

“for every successful project that gets the go-ahead, there are others into which people put great effort but which then run up against problems.”

With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.

 

Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra by Laura Galloway

The title is the word for winter in the Northern Sámi language. Galloway, a journalist, traded in New York City for Arctic Norway after a) a DNA test told her that she had Sámi blood and b) she met and fell for Áilu, a reindeer herder, at a wedding. She enrolled in an intensive language learning course at university level and got used to some major cultural changes: animals were co-workers here rather than pets (like the two cats she brought with her); communal meals and drawn-out goodbyes were not the done thing; and shamans were still active (one helped them find a key she lost). Footwear neatly sums up the difference. The Prada heels she brought “just in case” ended up serving as hammers; instead, she helped Áilu’s mother make reindeer skins into boots. Two factors undermined my enjoyment: Alternating chapters about her unhappy upbringing in Indiana don’t add much of interest, and, after her relationship with Áilu ends, the book feels aimless. However, I appreciated her words about DNA not defining you, and family being what you make it.

With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland St.-John (2020)

Native American poet Sharmagne Leland St.-John’s fifth collection is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at people and places from one’s past. There are multiple elegies for public figures – everyone from Janis Joplin to Virginia Woolf – as well as for some who aren’t household names but have important stories that should be commemorated, like Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the Soweto Uprising for protesting enforced teaching of Afrikaans in South Africa in 1976. Many of the elegies are presented as songs. Personal sources of sadness, such as a stillbirth, disagreements with a daughter, and ageing, weigh as heavily as tragic world events.

Rhyming and alliteration create inviting rhythms throughout the book, and details of colour and fashion animate poems like “La Kalima.” Leland St.-John remembers meeting street children in Mexico, while bamboo calls to mind time spent in Japan. “Promised Land” is an ironic account of land being seized from natives and people of colour. I especially liked “Things I Would Have Given to My Mother Had She Asked” (some literal and some more abstract), which opens “A piece of my liberal mind. 5 more minutes of my time”, and the sombre “Cat’s Cradle” (“Drenched starlings perch on a cat’s cradle of telephone wires”).

You can read “I Said Coffee” and a few more of her poems online.

With thanks to the author for sending a free e-copy for review.

 

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Sampson

Coming in at under 260 pages, this isn’t your standard comprehensive biography. Sampson instead describes it as a “portrait,” one that takes up the structure of EBB’s nine-book epic poem, Aurora Leigh, and is concerned with themes of identity and the framing of stories. Elizabeth, as she is cosily called throughout the book, wrote poems that lend themselves to autobiographical interpretation – “her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it,” Sampson asserts.

Nicknamed “Ba,” Elizabeth was born in 1806 and brought up with 11 younger siblings at a Herefordshire estate, Hope End. Her father, Edward, had been born in Jamaica and the family fortune was based on sugar – and slavery. Sampson makes much of this inherited guilt, and also places an emphasis on EBB’s lifelong ill health, which involved headaches, back and side pain, and depression. She also suffered from respiratory complaints. The modern medically minded reader tries to come up with a concrete diagnosis. Tardive dystonia? Post-viral syndrome? The author offers many potential explanations, and notes that her subject was the very type of the Victorian female invalid. She would also suffer from miscarriages, but had one son, Pen. The Brownings were in the unusual position of the wife being the more famous partner.

Sampson draws heavily on correspondence and earnestly interrogates scenes and remembrances, but her use of the present tense is a bit odd for a historical narrative, and I found my casual curiosity about the Brownings wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. However, this did make me eager to try more of EBB’s poetry. I wonder if I still have that copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese in a box in the States?

Favourite lines:

“Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. … Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”

With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Blog Tour Review)

Is it possible to capture the complete course of a life, whether looking from the outside or telling it from the inside? What is set in stone and what is fleeting? These are questions Carol Shields addresses in her 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, which plays with perspective and forms of storytelling as it conveys the extra/ordinary life of Daisy Stone Goodwill Flett. What with the family tree and section of black-and-white photographs, you might expect this to be a family saga; with the chronological chapters proceeding from “Birth” in 1905 to “Death” in the 1990s, you might expect an objective faux-biography. But The Stone Diaries is neither.

The facts are these. Daisy’s mother, Mercy, dies giving birth to her in rural Manitoba. Raised by a neighbor, Daisy later moves to Indiana with her stonecutter father, Cuyler. After a disastrously short first marriage, Daisy returns to Canada to marry Barker Flett. Their three children and Ottawa garden become her life. She temporarily finds purpose in her empty-nest years by writing a “Mrs. Green Thumb” column for a local newspaper, but her retirement in Florida is plagued by illness and the feeling that she has missed out on what matters most.

What makes this surprising life story so remarkable is its unpicking of (auto)biographical authenticity: Shields switches between the first and third person, between Daisy’s point of view and a feigned omniscience. Some sections foreground others’ opinions: Chapter 6 is composed entirely of letters Daisy receives, while Chapter 7 collects short first-person narratives from her children and friends as they speculate on why she has fallen into a depression.

As in Shields’s Happenstance and Larry’s Party, which I’ve also reread this year, I was struck by the role that chance plays in any life:

History indeed! As though this paltry slice of time deserves such a name. Accident, not history, has called us together, and what an assembly we make. What confusion, what a clamor of inadequacy and portent.

Talk of bias, gaps and unreliability undermines the narrative:

Well, a childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy’s representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt.

Daisy herself almost disappears from the parts of the book where she is voiceless, consumed by her roles – by the end she is universally known as “Grandma Flett.” This meant that other characters stood out as more memorable to me: Cuyler for his obsessive building of stone monuments and streams of words, Barker for his love of plants and long-deferred sexual fulfillment, Daisy’s friend Fraidy Hoyt for her careful chronicling of fast living, and Magnus, Barker’s father, who lives long past his 100th birthday after his return to the Orkney Islands.

As in Moon Tiger, one of my absolute favorites, the author explores how events and memories turn into artifacts. The meta approach also, I suspect, tips the hat to other works of Canadian literature: in her introduction, Margaret Atwood mentions that the poet whose story inspired Shields’s Mary Swann had a collection entitled A Stone Diary, and surely the title’s similarity to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964) can’t be pure coincidence.

Experiencing the novel again after 14 years, I was impressed by the experimentation but ultimately somewhat detached from the story. It was admiration rather than love; I enjoyed earlier chapters more than the last few. But isn’t that just like life, to keep going past the point where it’s fun? And isn’t that the point, that the meaning you long for may not be there at all?

Marcie (Buried in Print) and I have reread – or, in my case for half of them, read for the first time – six Shields novels together in 2020. I hope I’ll find time to respond to the rest of them in the next few weeks. It has been so rewarding to observe how her themes recur and interlock. How heartening to see that, 17 years after her death, Shields is still being read and remembered, through the World Editions reissues (three more are coming in 2021) and through the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a new $100,000 annual award for North American women’s writing.


The Stone Diaries was reissued in the UK by World Editions on December 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

I was delighted to be invited to help close out the blog tour for The Stone Diaries. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Rodham to The Shadow in the Garden

This month we’re all starting with Rodham. I reviewed this Marmite novel as part of the UK blog tour and was fully engaged in its blend of historical and fictional material. Ultimately, it doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we all know too much about Hillary Clinton, but it was a lot of fun for summer binge reading and is a must for any diehard Curtis Sittenfeld fan.

#1 Late last year I was sent an e-copy of The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton for a potential review. I didn’t end up reading it at the time, but I still have it on my Kindle so might get to it someday. Like many, many books that have come out over the last few years, it’s full of mini-biographies of praiseworthy women from history. It seems a bit superfluous and overlong, but if the writing is up to snuff it might still be one to skim.

#2 Speaking of guts, earlier in the year I took perverse glee in reading Gulp by Mary Roach, a tour through the body’s digestive and excretory systems. Here’s a quick question to help you gauge whether the book is for you: does the prospect of three chapters on flatulence make you go “Yesssss!” or “Ew, no. Why?!” I’m in the former camp so, for the most part, found it fascinating. Footnotes on bizarre scientific studies are particularly hilarious.

 

#3 I’ve read two novels with “Roach” in the title; I didn’t want to use Ian McEwan as a link two months in a row, so I went with the other one: Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, which is also a good follow-on from #WITMonth as it was originally written in French. I reviewed this harrowing memoir of her Tutsi family’s slaughter during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s for Wasafiri literary magazine in early 2018.

#4 One of the sunny/summer reads I featured last week was The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński. One essay from the middle of the book is called “A Lecture on Rwanda,” which locates the seeds of the 1990s conflict in the independence struggle and peasant revolt of the late 1950s and early 1960s: the Hutu majority caste (85%) was composed of tenant farmers who rebelled against the cattle-owning Tutsi minority (14%).

 

#5 I’ve read another book by the title The Shadow of the Sun, this one a weak early novel by A.S. Byatt. It’s about a young woman struggling to get out from under the expectations and example of her father, a literary lion.

#6 Staying in the shadows … my top nonfiction read of 2017 was James Atlas’s memoir of the biographer’s profession, The Shadow in the Garden. The book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality; and how we look for patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even though I knew little about his two main subjects, poet Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, I found the book thoroughly enthralling.

 


Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best; see her intro post.)

Have you read any of my selections?

Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

Two Final Wellcome Book Prize Longlist Reviews: Krasnostein & Moshfegh

I’ve now read eight of the 12 titles longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019 and skimmed another two, leaving just two unexplored.

My latest two reads are books that I hugely enjoyed yet would be surprised to see make the shortlist (both ):

 

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. For one thing, its subject is still alive and has never been much of a public figure, at least not outside Victoria, Australia. For another, your average biography is robustly supported by archival evidence; to the contrary, this is a largely oral history conveyed by an unreliable narrator. And lastly, whether a biography is critical or adulatory overall, the author usually at least feigns objectivity. Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t bother with that. Sandra Pankhurst’s life is an incredible blend of ordinary and bizarre circumstances and experiences, and it’s clear Krasnostein is smitten with her. “I fall in love … anew each time I listen to her speak,” she gushes towards the book’s end. At first I was irked by all the fawning adjectives she uses for Sandra, but eventually I stopped noticing them and allowed myself to sink into this astonishing story.

Sandra was born male and adopted by a couple whose child had died. When they later conceived again, they basically disowned ‘Peter’, moving him to an outdoor shed and making him scrounge for food. His adoptive father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked him out permanently when he was 17. Peter married ‘Linda’ at age 19 and they had two sons in quick succession, but he was already going to gay bars and wearing makeup; when he heard about the possibility of a sex change, he started taking hormones right away. Even before surgery completed the gender reassignment, Sandra got involved in sex work, and was a prostitute for years until a brutal rape at the Dream Palace brothel drove her to seek other employment. Cleaning and funeral home jobs nicely predicted the specialty business she would start after the hardware store she ran with her late husband George went under: trauma cleaning.

Krasnostein parcels this chronology into tantalizing pieces, interspersed with chapters in which she accompanies Sandra and her team on assignments. They fumigate and clean up bodily fluids after suicides and overdoses, but also deal with clients who have lost control of their possessions – and, to some extent, their lives. They’re hoarders, cancer patients and ex-convicts; their homes are overtaken by stuff and often saturated with mold or feces. Sandra sympathizes with the mental health struggles that lead people into such extreme situations. Her line of work takes “Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour,” she tells Krasnostein; even better if you can “not … take the smell in, ’cause they stink.”

The author does a nice job of staying out of the narrative: though she’s an observer and questioner, there’s only the occasional paragraph in which she mentions her own life. Her mother left when she was young, which helps to explain why she is so compassionate towards the addicts and hoarders she meets with Sandra. Some of the loveliest passages have her pondering how things got so bad for these people and affirming that their lives still have value. As for Sandra herself – now in her sixties and increasingly ill with lung disease and cirrhosis – Krasnostein believes she’s never been unconditionally loved and so has never formed true human connections.

This book does many different things in its 250 pages. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. It’s also simply a terrific read that should draw in lots of people who wouldn’t normally pick up nonfiction. I don’t expect it to advance to the shortlist, but if it does I’ll be not-so-secretly delighted.


A favorite passage:

Sometimes, listening to Sandra try to remember the events of her life is like watching someone reel in rubbish on a fishing line: a weird mix of surprise, perplexity and unexpected recognition. No matter how many times we go over the first three decades of her life, the timeline of places and dates is never clear. Many of her memories have a quality beyond being merely faded; they are so rusted that they have crumbled back into the soil of her origins. Others have been fossilised, frozen in time, and don’t have a personal pull until they defrost slightly in the sunlit air between us as we speak. And when that happens there is a tremor in her voice as she integrates them back into herself, not seamlessly but fully.

See also:

Annabel’s review

Laura’s review

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

If you’ve read her Booker-shortlisted debut, Eileen, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Moshfegh has written another love-it-or-hate-it book with a narrator whose odd behavior is hard to stomach. This worked better for me than Eileen, I think because I approached it as a deadpan black comedy in the same vein as Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Its inclusion on the Wellcome longlist is somewhat tenuous: in 2000 the unnamed narrator, in her mid-twenties, gets a negligent psychiatrist to prescribe her drugs for insomnia and depression and stockpiles them so she can take pill cocktails to knock herself out for days at a time. In a sense this is a way of extending the numbness that started with her parents’ deaths – her father from cancer and her mother by suicide. But there’s also a more fantastical scheme in her mind: “when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay, I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”

Ever since she was let go from her job at a gallery that showcases ridiculous modern art, the only people in this character’s life are an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Trevor, and her best (only) friend from college, longsuffering Reva, who keeps checking up on her in her New York City apartment even though she consistently treats Reva with indifference or disdain. Soon her life is a bleary cycle of sleepwalking and sleep-shopping, interspersed with brief periods of wakefulness, during which she watches a nostalgia-inducing stream of late-1990s movies on video (the kind of stuff I watched at sleepovers with my best friend during high school) – she has a weird obsession with Whoopi Goldberg.

It’s a wonder the plot doesn’t become more repetitive. I like reading about routines, so I was fascinated to see how the narrator methodically takes her project to extremes. Amazingly, towards the middle of the novel she gets herself from a blackout situation to Reva’s mother’s funeral – about the only time we see somewhere that isn’t her apartment, the corner shop, the pharmacy or Dr. Tuttle’s office – and this interlude is just enough to break things up. There are lots of outrageous lines and preposterous decisions that made me laugh. Consumerism and self-medication to deaden painful emotions are the targets of this biting satire. As 9/11 approaches, you wonder what it will take to wake this character up to her life. I’ve often wished I could hibernate through British winters, but I wouldn’t do what Moshfegh’s antiheroine does. Call this a timely cautionary tale about privilege and disengagement.


Favorite lines:

“Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”

“Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”

Reva: “you’re not changing anything in your sleep. You’re just avoiding your problems. … Your problem is that you’re passive. You wait around for things to change, and they never will. That must be a painful way to live. Very disempowering.”

See also:

Clare’s review

 

And one more that I got out from the library and skimmed:

Murmur by Will Eaves (2018)

The subject is Alec Pryor, or “the scientist.” It’s clear that he is a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs at the head of most chapters. Turing was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. I happily read the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017), but “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” was a lot harder to get into, so I ended up just giving the rest of the book a quick skim. If this is shortlisted, I promise to return to it and give it fair consideration.

 

See also:

Annabel’s review

 

We will announce our shadow panel shortlist on Friday. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews, predictions and reactions.

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern obsessions with music, fly-fishing and refugees.

Author Kirk Wallace Johnson worked for USAID in Iraq, heading up the reconstruction of Fallujah, then founded a non-profit organization rehoming refugees in America. Plagued by PTSD, he turned to fly-fishing as therapy, and this was how he heard about the curious case of Edwin Rist, who stole the bird specimens from Tring to sell the bright feathers to fellow hobbyists who tie elaborate Victorian-style fishing flies.

Rist, from upstate New York, was a 20-year-old flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Since age 11 he’d been fixated on fly-tying, especially old-fashioned salmon ties, which use exotic feathers or ordinary ones dyed to look like them. An online friend told him he should check out Tring – the museum Walter Rothschild’s financier father built for him as a twenty-first birthday present – when he got to London. In 2008 Rist scoped out the collection, pretending to be photographing the birds of paradise for a friend’s book.

A year later he took the train to Tring one summer night with an empty suitcase and a glass cutter, broke in through a window, stole 300 bird skins, and made it back to his flat without incident. The museum only discovered the crime a month later, by accident. Rist sold many feathers and whole birds via a fly-tying forum and on eBay. It was nearly another year and a half before the police knocked on his door, having been alerted by a former law enforcement officer who encountered a museum-grade bird skin at the Dutch Fly Fair and asked where it came from.

An interior shot showing some plates of fishing flies.

Here is where things get really interesting, at least for me. Rist confessed immediately, but a psychological evaluation diagnosed him with Asperger’s; on the strength of that mental health defense he was given a suspension and a large fine, but no jail time, so he graduated from the Royal Academy as normal and auditioned for jobs. The precedent was a case from 2000 in which a young man with Asperger’s who stole human remains from a Bristol graveyard was exonerated.

The book is in three parts: the first gives historical context about specimen collection and the early feather trade; the second is a blow-by-blow of Rist’s crime and the aftermath, including the trial; and the third goes into Wallace’s own investigation process. He started by attending a fly-tying symposium, where he felt like an outsider and even received vague threats: Rist was now a no-go subject for this community. But Wallace wasn’t going to be deterred. Sixty-four bird skins were still missing, and his quest was to track them down. He started by contacting Rist’s confirmed customers, then interviewed Rist himself in Germany and traveled to Norway to meet someone who might have been Rist’s accomplice – or fall guy.

From the back cover.

I happened to be a bit too familiar with the related history – I’ve read a lot of books that touch on Alfred Russel Wallace, whose specimens formed the core of the Tring collection, as well as a whole book on the feather trade for women’s hats and the movement against the extermination, which led to the formation of the Audubon Society (Kris Radish’s The Year of Necessary Lies). This meant that I was a little impatient with the first few chapters, but if you are new to these subjects you shouldn’t have that problem. For me the highlights were the reconstruction of the crime itself and Wallace’s inquiry into whether the Asperger’s diagnosis was accurate and a fair excuse for Rist’s behavior.

This whole story is stranger than fiction, which would make it a great selection for readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction, perhaps expecting it to be dry or taxing. Far from it. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.

My rating:

 


The Feather Thief was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 26th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.

Biography of the Month: Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

The first book I ever reviewed on this blog, nearly three years ago, happened to be Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill. It was the strength of the writing in that offbeat work of history, as well as rave reviews for this 2017 biography of Muhammad Ali (1942–2016), that led me to pick up a sport-themed book. 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. 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 loved it.

Today would have been Ali’s 76th birthday, so in honor of the occasion – and his tendency to spout off-the-cuff rhymes about his competitors’ shortfalls and his own greatness – I’ve turned his life story into a book review of sorts, in rhyming couplets.

 

Born into 1940s Kentucky,

this fine boy had decent luck – he

surpassed his angry, cheating father

though he shared his name; no bother –

he’d not be Cassius Clay much longer.

He knew he was so much stronger

than all those other boys. Racing

the bus with Rudy; embracing

the help of a white policeman,

his first boxing coach – this guardian

prepared him for Olympic gold

(the last time Cassius did as told?).

 

Ali in 1967. By Ira Rosenberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A self-promoter from the start, he

was no scholar but won hearts; he

hogged every crowd’s full attention

but his faults are worth a mention:

he hoarded Caddys and Royces

and made bad financial choices;

he went through one, two, three, four wives

and lots of other dames besides;

his kids – no closer than his fans –

hardly even got a chance.

 

Cameos from bin Laden, Trump,

Toni Morrison and more: jump

ahead and you’ll see an actor,

envoy, entrepreneur, preacher,

recognized-all-round-the-world brand

(though maybe things got out of hand).

Ali was all things to all men

and fitted in the life of ten

but though he tested a lot of walks,

mostly he just wanted to box.

 

The fights: Frazier, Foreman, Liston –

they’re all here, and the details stun.

Eig gives a vivid blow-by-blow

such that you will feel like you know

what it’s like to be in the ring:

dodge, jab, weave; hear that left hook sing

past your ear. Catch rest at the ropes

but don’t stay too long like a dope.

 

If, like Ali, you sting and float,

keep an eye on your age and bloat –

the young, slim ones will catch you out.

Bow out before too many bouts.

Ignore the signs if you so choose

(ain’t got many brain cells to lose –

these blows to the head ain’t no joke);

retirement talk ain’t foolin’ folk,

can’t you give up on earning dough

and think more about your own soul?

 

1968 Esquire cover. By George Lois (Esquire Magazine) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Just like Malcolm X always said

Allah laid a call on your head:

To raise up the black man’s status

and ask white men why they hate us;

to resist the Vietnam draft

though that nearly got you the shaft

and lost you your name, your title

and (close) your rank as an idol.

Was it all real, your piety?

Was it worth it in society?

 

Nation of Islam was your crew

but sure did leave you in the stew

with that Vietcong kerfuffle

and Malcolm/Muhammad shuffle.

Through U.S. missions (after 9/11)

you explained it ain’t about heaven

and who you’ll kill to get you there;

it’s about peace, being God’s heir.

 

Is this story all about race?

Eig believes it deserves its place

as the theme of Ali’s life: he

was born in segregation, see,

a black fighter in a white world,

but stereotypes he hurled

right back in their faces: Uncle

Tom Negro? Naw, even punch-drunk he’ll

smash your categories and crush

your expectations. You can flush

that flat dismissal down the john;

don’t think you know what’s going on.

 

Dupe, ego, clown, greedy, hero:

larger than life, Jesus or Nero?

How to see both, that’s the kicker;

Eig avoids ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stickers

but shows a life laid bare and

how win and lose ain’t fair and

history is of our making

and half of legacy is faking

and all you got to do is spin

the world round ’till it lets you in.

 

Ali in 2004.

Biography’s all ’bout the arc

and though this story gets real dark,

there’s a glister to it all the same.

A man exists beyond the fame.

What do you know beneath the name?

Less, I’d make a bet, than you think.

Come over here and take a drink:

this is long, deep, satisfying;

you won’t escape without crying.

Based on 600 interviews,

this fresh account is full of news

and fit for all, not just sports fans.

Whew, let’s give it up for Eig, man.

 

My rating:

My Top 10 Nonfiction Reads of 2017

Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.

 

  1. Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.

 

  1. My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.

 

  1. The U.S. cover

    In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)

 

  1. My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.

 

  1. The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.

 

  1. Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.

 

And my nonfiction book of the year was:

1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)

Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.

Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.

This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.

 

 

I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.

 


What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?

Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.

 

Next week’s planned posts:

26th: Doorstopper of the Month

27th: Top fiction of the year list

28th: Runners-up and other superlatives

29th: Early 2018 recommendations

30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading

Young Writer of the Year Award: Shortlist Readings Event

On Saturday I attended an exclusive bloggers’ event at the Groucho Club in London with four of the authors shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award (Sally Rooney was unable to make it from Dublin). Also in attendance were fellow shadow panelists Annabel and Clare and some other notable names from the UK blogging community, including Eric Karl Anderson and Naomi Frisby. It was lovely to meet them, and Annabel, for the first time, and to have time to chat with the shortlisted authors.

That’s me with Clare and Annabel. Thanks to Eric Karl Anderson for taking the photo.

The event was chaired by Robert Collins, a former deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times now with Intelligence Squared. Each author gave a short reading from their book and answered questions from the chair and the audience. In every case, what I heard helped me appreciate the work and the author more. All four writers were so funny and warm, and seemed equally humbled and delighted to be in the running for this award.

Minoo Dinshaw reminded me of an Oxford don twice his age. (Indeed, his father is an Oxford don, and his mother is Scottish writer Candia McWilliam, so he has a proud literary pedigree.) He first became aware of Steven Runciman as a child when he and his mother spotted the wizened old man in a hotel lobby in Edinburgh, where they had traveled for the book festival. He then read Runciman’s Crusades books at school, and when in 2011 he met Runciman’s niece and she asked him to write the biography, he said he couldn’t think of anything else he wanted to do. (And still can’t.) Reading from his Kindle as “I didn’t want to break my wrist” (!), he chose a late passage featuring Steven in his nineties. Dinshaw said that while writing about Runciman he felt by turns flirted with and accused. Living in his subject’s house, working in his library, even sleeping in his bed (just the once), he felt he “had a very strange ghost in my life.” Dinshaw said the project captured his attention because he’s romantic and competitive, but that he’d like to try writing fiction in the future.

Clare with Minoo Dinshaw. Photo by Annabel Gaskell.

Julianne Pachico read a party scene from “The Tourists,” as it’s approaching the festive season. I was intrigued to learn that the interlinking structure of her book only emerged late on in the editing process; she’d originally meant to write a post-apocalyptic novel set all in one house, but found that setting too limiting. “I sort of work it out as I go along,” she said. So is it short stories or a novel? She’s sick of this question! Really she just wanted to write the kind of book she likes to read, citing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten as examples. Asked about her mentors, Pachico cited her mother, who told her “you’ll never be lonely, you’ll never be bored” as long as you read; and her first tutor, Andrew Cowan, who told her no one out there was writing anything like her story “Junkie Rabbit” – just the affirmation she needed. With all that’s happened in 2017, Pachico said she plans to turn to writing as a way “to outcreate the abyss” (a phrase from her twin sister, who’s also a writer). Pachico also teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam.

Julianne Pachico signing my book. Photo by Annabel Gaskell.

(As Sally Rooney was not in attendance, Collins read on her behalf a passage about Frances and Bobbi’s early friendship at school.)

Claire North, aka “Cat” (real name: Catherine Webb; her fantasy and science fiction books are under various names) was in a way the odd one out at this event. Collins opened by saying that this award is all about getting in on the ground level with these writers, several of whom are debut authors. But North is a teen phenom who published her first book at age 14 and is set to release #20 next year. All along her parents called her a freak and demanded that she get her GCSEs and go to uni because writing “isn’t a proper job” (“but we’re very proud of you!” they’d usually append). She’s experienced the full gamut of responses over the years: some swore she wouldn’t have anything to say until age 40; others sighed that once she turned 18 she could no longer be marketed as “young.” She read the perfect passage from The End of the Day: a frantic, bravura account of the riders of the apocalypse together on a plane. She loves that science fiction “makes the extraordinary domestic” and playing with death appealed to her “flippant nature.” Charlie is, she thinks, the kindest character she’s ever written.


Sara Taylor read from one of Ma’s earliest stories about how her parents met. She wrote The Lauras while she was supposed to be completing her PhD thesis on censorship in American literature. At the time she was coming to terms with the fact that she was going to be staying in the UK, as well as remembering family road trips and aspects of her relationship with her mother that she wishes were otherwise. Her agent wasn’t comfortable with the focus on an “agender” character, but Taylor held firm. She’s used to ignoring the advice her (older, male) professors and advisors tend to give her. Instead, she gets tips from her ten-years-younger sister back in the States, who knows exactly how to “fix” her work. Taylor feels the USA is 5–10 years behind the UK on gender issues, and revealed that The Lauras is a response to the novel Love Child (1971) by Maureen Duffy. She has recently finished her third novel and hopes to get back into teaching since writing non-stop for nine months makes her “go a little funny.”

 


This was such a special event. There were no more than 20 people in the room, and at the end I got a chance to speak to each of the authors as they signed my books. I normally get shy in such situations, but everyone was completely approachable. (Sara Taylor and I confirmed that we were indeed on the same study abroad program to England, a few years apart, so spent some time reminiscing about Reading and our formerly women-only colleges. Her mother went to Hood College, my alma mater – thus the brief mention of it in The Lauras.)


Important upcoming dates:

  • November 24th: shadow panel meeting in London
  • November 27th: deadline for shadow panel winner decision
  • November 29th: shadow panel winner announced on STPFD website
  • December 3rd: shadow panel winner announced in Sunday Times
  • December 7th: prize-giving ceremony at the London Library

I’ll be aiming to post my last couple of reviews on Wednesday.