Back in April I announced that my book club was one of six selected to shadow this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist by reading and discussing one of the finalists. Our assigned title was one I’d already read, but I skimmed back through it before our meet-up and enjoyed getting reacquainted with Martha Friel. Here’s our group’s review:
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Can’t Put It Down: 4.5/5
Total = 18.5/20
Our joint highest rating, and one of our best discussions – taking in mental illness and its diagnosis and treatment, marriage, childlessness, alcoholism, sisterhood, creativity, neglect, unreliable narrators and loneliness. For several of us, these issues hit close to home due to personal or family experience. We particularly noted the way that Mason sets up parallels between pairs of characters, accurately reflecting how family dynamics can be replicated in later generations.
Even the minor characters are fully rounded, and although Martha is not always pleasant to spend time with, her voice is impressively rendered. The picture of mental illness from the inside feels authentic, including the fact that Martha uses it as an excuse for her bad behaviour, becoming self-absorbed and not seeing how she is affecting others around her. Our main point of disagreement was about Mason’s decision not to name the mental illness Martha is suffering from. It seemed clear to several of us that it was meant to be bipolar disorder, so we wondered if it was a copout not to identify it as such.
We also thought about the meaning of the term “literary fiction”, and whether this has the qualities of a prize winner and will stand the test of time.
We had to fill out a feedback questionnaire about our experience of shadowing, and most of us sent in individual blurbs in response to the book. Some ended up in the final Reading Agency article. Here was mine:
“This deceptively light novel was a perfect book club selection, eliciting deep discussion about mental illness, family relationships and parenthood. Martha’s (unreliable) narration is a delight, wry and deadpan but also with moments of wrenching emotion. Mason masterfully controls the tone to create something that is witty and poignant all at once.”
Probably the main reason we were chosen for this opportunity is that we have a man – my husband, that is! – who attends regularly. This year the prize has been particularly keen to get more men reading books by women (see more below). So, he was responsible for giving The Male Response to the novel. No pressure, right? Luckily, he enjoyed it just as much as the rest of us. From the cover and blurb, it didn’t necessarily seem like the sort of book that he would pick up to read for himself, but he was fully engaged with the themes of mental illness, family relationships, and the question of whether or not to have children, and was so compelled that he read over half of it in a day.
I’m not sure who I expect to be awarded the Women’s Prize tomorrow. We of West Fields Readers would be delighted if it went to Meg Mason for Sorrow and Bliss, but I’d also be happy with a win for Louise Erdrich or Ruth Ozeki – though I wasn’t taken with their latest works compared with earlier ones I’ve read, they are excellent authors who deserve recognition. I don’t think The Bread the Devil Knead has a chance; I’d be disappointed in a win by Elif Shafak in that I would feel obligated to try her novel – the kind that gives magic realism a bad name – again; and, while I’m a Maggie Shipstead fan in general and admire the ambition of Great Circle, it would be galling for a book I DNFed twice to take the title!
Who are you rooting for/predicting?
I’d like to mock you with that thought,
jeer at the man
who won’t read novels
written by women –
at least not if they’re still alive
~from The Poet by Louisa Reid
Maybe you’ve seen on social media that the Women’s Prize has been canvassing opinion on the books by women that all men should read. This was prompted by some shocking statistics suggesting that even bestselling female authors can only attract a 20% male readership, whereas the best-known male authors are almost equally popular with men and women. They solicited 60 nominations from big names and ran a public poll. I voted for these 10:
Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Possession (A.S. Byatt)
Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)
The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)
The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
Orlando (Virginia Woolf)
*If I could have added to that list, though, my top recommendations for all men to read would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (and probably a different Octavia E. Butler novel from the one nominated).
Three of my selections were among the 10 essential reads announced on the WP website. Their list was headed by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, though of her works I’d be more likely to direct men to Oryx and Crake.
I’ve seen discussions on Twitter about why men don’t read novels (at all, prioritizing nonfiction), or specifically not ones by women. Do you have any theories?
What one book by a woman do you think all men should read?
Today I have a biography-cum-cultural history of America’s wild foods and a novel about beekeeping and mental illness.
Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs (2010)
(20 Books of Summer, #15) In 1879, Mark Twain, partway through the Grand Tour immortalized in A Tramp Abroad, was sick of bland, poor-quality European food and hankering for down-home American cooking. He drew up a list of 80 foodstuffs he couldn’t wait to get back to: everything from soft-shell crabs to proper ice water. “The menu shouts of a joyous abundance,” Beahrs writes. “It testifies to a deep bond in Twain’s mind between eating and tasting and celebrating … rooted food that would live forever in his memory.”
Beahrs goes in search of some of those trademark dishes and explores their changes in production over the last 150 years. In some cases, the creatures and their habitats are so endangered that we don’t eat them anymore, like Illinois’ prairie chickens and Maryland’s terrapins, but he has experts show him where remnant populations live. In San Francisco Bay, he helps construct an artificial oyster reef. He meets cranberry farmers in Massachusetts and maple tree tappers in Vermont. At the Louisiana Foodservice EXPO he gorges on “fried oysters and fried shrimp and fries. I haven’t had much green, but I’ve had pecan waffles with bacon, and I’ve inserted beignets and café au lait between meals with the regularity of an Old Testament prophet chanting ‘begat.’”
But my favorite chapter was about attending a Coon Supper in Arkansas, a local tradition that has been in existence since the 1930s. Raccoons are hunted, butchered, steamed in enormous kettles, and smoked before the annual fundraising meal attended by 1000 people. Raccoon meat is greasy and its flavor sounds like an acquired taste: “a smell like nothing I’ve smelled before but which I’ll now recognize until I die (not, I hope, as a result of eating raccoon).” Beahrs has an entertaining style and inserts interesting snippets from Twain’s life story, as well as recipes from 19th-century cookbooks. There are lots of books out there about the country’s increasingly rare wild foods, but the Twain connection is novel, if niche.
Source: A remainder book from Wonder Book (Frederick, Maryland)
The Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver (1999)
(20 Books of Summer, #16) Ever since I read The End of the Point (which featured in one of my Six Degrees posts), I’ve meant to try more by Graver. This was her second novel, a mother-and-daughter story that unearths the effects of mental illness on a family. Eleven-year-old Eva has developed a bad habit of shoplifting, so her mother Miriam moves them out from New York City to an upstate farmhouse for the summer. But in no time Eva, slipping away from her elderly babysitter’s supervision and riding her bike into the countryside, is stealing jars of honey from a roadside stand. She keeps going back and strikes up a friendship with the middle-aged beekeeper, Burl, whom she seems to see as a replacement for her father, Francis, who died of a heart attack when she was six.
Alternating chapters look back at how Miriam met Francis and how she gradually became aware of his bipolar disorder. This strand seems to be used to prop up Miriam’s worries about Eva (since bipolar has a genetic element); while it feels true to the experience of mental illness, it’s fairly depressing. Meanwhile, Burl doesn’t become much of a presence in his own right, so he and the beekeeping feel incidental, maybe only included because Graver kept/keeps bees herself. Although Eva is an appealingly plucky character, I’d recommend any number of bee-themed novels, such as The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, and even Generation A by Douglas Coupland, over this one.
Source: Secondhand copy from Beltie Books, Wigtown
Just three weeks remain in this challenge. I’m reading another four books towards it, and have two more to pick up during our mini-break to Devon and Dorset this coming weekend. A few of my choices are long and/or slow-moving reads, though, so I have a feeling I’ll be reading right down to the wire…
Today I have another two memoirs linked by France and its cuisine.
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (1998)
(20 Books of Summer, #13) I’ve read Reichl’s memoirs out of order, starting with Garlic and Sapphires (2005), about her time as a New York Times food critic, and moving on to Comfort Me with Apples (2001), about her involvement in California foodie culture in the 1970s–80s. Whether because I’d been primed by the disclaimer in the author’s note (“I have occasionally embroidered. I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story”) or not, I sensed that certain characters and scenes were exaggerated here. Although I didn’t enjoy her memoir of her first 30 years as much as either of the other two I’d read, it was still worth reading.
The cover image is a genuine photograph taken by Reichl’s German immigrant father, book designer Ernst Reichl, in 1955. Early on, Reichl had to fend for herself in the kitchen: her bipolar mother hoarded discount food even it was moldy, so the family quickly learned to avoid her dishes made with ingredients that were well past their best. Like Eric Asimov and Anthony Bourdain, whose memoirs I’ve also reviewed this summer, Reichl got turned on to food by a top-notch meal in France. Food was a form of self-expression as well as an emotional crutch in many situations to come: during boarding school in Montreal, her rebellious high school years, and while living off of trendy grains and Dumpster finds at a co-op in Berkeley.
Reichl worked with food in many ways during her twenties. She was a waitress during college in Michigan, and a restaurant collective co-owner in California; she gave cooking lessons; she catered parties; and she finally embarked on a career as a restaurant critic. Her travels took her to France (summer camp counselor; later, wine aficionado), Morocco (with her college roommate), and Crete (a honeymoon visit to her favorite professor). Raised in New York City, she makes her way back there frequently, too. Overall, the book felt a bit scattered to me, with few if any recipes that I would choose to make, and the relationship with a mentally ill mother was so fraught that I will probably avoid Reichl’s two later books focusing on her mother.
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004)
(20 Books of Summer, #14) Steinbach makes a repeat appearance in my summer reading docket: her 2000 travel book Without Reservations was one of my 2018 selections. In that book, she took a sabbatical during her 50s to explore Paris, England, and Italy. Here she continues her efforts at lifelong learning by taking up some sort of lessons everywhere she goes. The long first section sees her back in Paris, enrolling at the Hotel Ritz’s Escoffier École de Gastronomie Française. She’s self-conscious about having joined late, being older than the other students and having to rely on the translator rather than the chef’s instructions, but she’s determined to keep up as the class makes omelettes, roast quail and desserts.
Full disclosure: I’ve only read the first chapter for now as it’s the only one directly relevant to food – in others she takes dance lessons in Japan, studies art in Cuba, trains Border collies in Scotland, etc. – but I was enjoying it and will go back to it before the end of the year.
Source: Free bookshop
“all these ideas are swirling around inside your head at once, hurling through your mind, it is on fire, so when you speak it all comes out muddled and confused and no one can understand you.”
Like the other Wellcome-longlisted title I’ve highlighted so far, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, Mind on Fire explores mental health. Its subtitle is “A Memoir of Madness and Recovery,” and Irish playwright Fanning focuses on the ten years or so in his twenties and thirties when he struggled to get on top of his bipolar disorder and was in and out of mental hospitals – and even homeless on the streets of London for a short time.
Fanning had suffered from periods of depression ever since his mother’s death from cancer when he was 20, but things got much worse when he was 28 and living in Dublin. It was the summer of 1997 and he’d quit a full-time job to write stories and film scripts. What with the wild swings in his moods and energy levels, though, he found it increasingly difficult to get along with his father, with whom he was living. He also got kicked out of an artists’ residency, and on the way home his car ran out of petrol – such that when he called the police for help, it was for a breakdown in more than one sense. This was the first time he was taken to a psychiatric unit, at the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital, where he stayed for 10 days.
In the years to come there would be many more hospital stays, delusions, medication regimes and odd behavior. There would also be time spent in America – an artists’ residency in Virginia, where he met Jennifer, and a fairly long-term relationship with her in New York City – and ups and downs in his writing career. For instance, he remembers that after reading Ulysses he was so despairingly convinced that he would never be a “real writer” like James Joyce that he burned hundreds of pages of work-in-progress.
This was a very hard book for me to rate. The prologue is a brilliant 6.5-page run-on sentence in the second person and present tense (I’ve quoted a fragment above) that puts you right into the author’s experience. It is a superb piece of writing. But nothing that comes after (a more standard first-person narrative, though still in the present tense for most of it) is nearly as good. As I’ve found in some other mental health memoirs, the cycle of hospitalizations and medications gets repetitive. It’s a whole lot of telling: this happened, then that happened. That’s also true of the flashbacks to his childhood and university years.
Due to his unreliable memory of his years lost to bipolar, Fanning has had to recreate his experiences from medical records, interviews with people who knew him, and so on. This insistence on documentary realism distances the reader from what should be intimate, terrifying events. I almost wondered if this would have worked better as a novel, allowing the author to invent more and thus better capture what it actually felt like to flirt with madness. There’s no denying the extremity of this period of his life, but I found myself unable to fully engage with the retelling. (Also, this is doomed to be mistaken for the superior Brain on Fire.)
A favorite passage:
St John of God’s carries associations for me. I attended primary school not far from here, and used to see denizens of the hospital on their day outings, conspicuous in the way they walked: hunched over, balled up, constricted, eyes down to the ground, visibly disturbed. We cruelly referred to these people as ‘mentallers’, though never to their faces or within earshot, as we were frightened of them.
Now I, too, am a mentaller.
My gut feeling: There are several stronger memoirs on the longlist, so I don’t see this one making it through.
- I’m about halfway through both The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
- I finally got hold of a library copy of Murmur by Will Eaves.
- The only two books I haven’t read and don’t have access to are Astroturf and Polio. I’ll only read these if they are on the shortlist. (Fingers crossed Astroturf doesn’t make it: it sounds awful!)
The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.
We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.