Tag Archives: bisexuality

Review Catch-Up: The Swimmers, Black Butterflies, Bi, and On the Scent

I have a preposterous backlog of review copies to finish and write about (I’m going to go ahead and blame buying a house, moving and DIY for my lack of focus and diminished time, as I have done most of this year), but I’ve decided to get on top of it by pulling a quartet off of my set-aside shelf each week for short responses. I always like to feature a variety, so here I have two fiction and two nonfiction selections: novels about assisted dying and the Bosnian War that are a lot funnier and more life-affirming than you might expect, and books about bisexuality and the sense of smell – and the effect of its loss.

 

The Swimmers by Chloe Lane (2020; 2022)

Erin Moore has returned to her family’s rural home for Queen’s Birthday (now a dated reference, alas!), a long weekend in New Zealand’s winter. Not a time for carefree bank holiday feasting, this; Erin’s mother has advanced motor neurone disease and announces that she intends to die on Tuesday. Aunty Wynn has a plan for obtaining the necessary suicide drug; it’s up to Erin to choreograph the rest. “I was the designated party planner for this morbid final frolic, and the promise of new failures loomed. … The whole thing was looking more and more like the plot of a French farce, except it wasn’t funny.”

Lane renders a potentially maudlin situation merely bittersweet through black comedy. Erin isn’t the most endearing narrator because, Disaster Woman-like, she keeps undertaking weird acts of self-sabotage – at 26, she’s blown her first gallery curation opportunity by sleeping with her boss. Still, the picture of a different sort of dysfunctional family and the contrast between an illustrious past (Erin comes from a line of semi-pro swimmers: Aunty Wynn qualified to compete in the Commonwealth Games) and an iffy future make this fairly memorable, if not so much so as the other 2022 The SwimmersJulie Otsuka’s.

Readalikes: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

With thanks to Gallic Books for the proof copy for review.

 

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (2022)

Drawing on her own family history, Morris has crafted an absorbing story set in Sarajevo in 1992, the first year of the Bosnian War. Zora, a middle-aged painter, has sent her husband, Franjo, and elderly mother off to England to stay with her daughter, Dubravka, confident that she’ll see out the fighting in the safety of their flat and welcome them home in no time. But things rapidly get much worse than she is prepared for. Phone lines are cut off, then the water, then the electricity. “We’re all refugees now, Zora writes to Franjo. We spend our days waiting for water, for bread, for humanitarian handouts: beggars in our own city.”

When even the haven of her studio is taken away from her, she’s reduced to the bare bones of existence, with just a few beloved neighbours to keep her spirits up. Her painting, more an obsession than a hobby, keeps her human as she awaits space on a Red Cross convoy. The title has heartrending significance: ‘black butterflies’ are fragments of paper carried on the breeze after the burning of the National Library of Sarajevo, 30 years ago last month. It was especially poignant to be reading this during the war in Ukraine and think about the sorts of daily dangers and deprivation that people face in conflict zones. The pages turned quickly and I was reminded of Girl at War, one of my absolute favourites, as well as The Pianist.

With thanks to Duckworth for the proof copy for review.

 

Bi: The hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality by Julia Shaw (2022)

I’m tying this in with today’s celebration of Bi Visibility Day. Shaw is a criminal psychologist; her third book is a departure for her thematically, but means a lot to her personally. Bisexuality is the largest minority sexuality group, yet bisexuals are less likely to be out because of misconceptions and stereotypes – there are fewer outward signals and less group identification – which can sometimes result in poor mental health. Shaw realized how tricky bi identity was when a German TV show wanted to base a character on her but didn’t know how to make her sexuality obvious to viewers (lingering glances/flirtations involving both men and women? a backstory about a previous relationship with a woman?), and when trying to figure out what to wear to gay bars.

The book aims to situate bisexuality historically and scientifically. The term “bisexual” has been around since the 1890s, with the Kinsey Scale and the Klein Grid early attempts to add nuance to a binary view. Shaw delights in the fact that the mother of the Pride movement in the 1970s, Brenda Howard, was bisexual. She also learns that “being behaviourally bisexual is commonplace in the animal kingdom,” with many species engaging in “sociosexual” behaviour (i.e., for fun rather than out of reproductive instinct). It’s thought that 83% of bisexuals are closeted, mostly due to restrictive laws or norms in certain parts of the world – those seeking asylum may be forced to “prove” bisexuality, which, as we’ve already seen, is a tough ask. And bisexuals can face “double discrimination” from the queer community.

It felt odd to me that a final chapter on bisexual relationships ended up being mostly about threesomes, such that my main question (as she puts it: “what are the problems with the assumed link between bisexuality and non-monogamy?”) only merited four pages. A valuable book, certainly, but one to read for information rather than entertainment or thoughtful prose.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

On the Scent: Unlocking the mysteries of smell – and how its loss can change your world by Paola Totaro and Robert Wainwright (2022)

Totaro (co-author Wainwright is her husband) contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and temporarily lost the ability to smell, prompting her to embark on this investigation into a less-understood sense. One in 10,000 people have congenital anosmia, but many more than that experience it at some point in life (e.g., due to head trauma, or as an early sign of Parkinson’s disease), and awareness has shot up since it’s been acknowledged as a symptom of Covid. For some, it’s parosmia instead – smell distortions – which can almost be worse, with people reporting a constant odour of smoke or garbage, or that some of their favourite aromas, like coffee, were now smelling like faeces instead. Such was the case for Totaro.

She visits fascinating places like the Smell and Taste clinic in Dresden and the University of Reading Flavour Centre. “Sniffin’ sticks” are used to put people’s sense of smell to the test, but it’s notoriously difficult, even for those who haven’t had their senses compromised by illness, to name a smell out of context; people generally don’t score over 50%. That’s one of the major questions the book asks: why it is quite so difficult to identify smells, or describe them in words. Totaro also considers perfume-making, the associations of particular smells (bleach, pine or lemon, depending on your country) with cleanliness, and the potential for multisensory experiences, such as releasing odours during film showings. Lots of interesting topics and stories here, but not as compelling on the whole as The Smell of Fresh Rain.

With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.

 

Best of the 4: Black Butterflies

 

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

Short Stories in September, Part I: Nam Le, Deesha Philyaw, Dan Rhodes

Part of my annual project to read as many short story collections as possible in September. Here’s the first three.

 

The Boat by Nam Le (2008)

Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, won the Dylan Thomas Prize for this collection of seven stories. The opener, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” – the title being William Faulkner’s advice for what authors should write about – knocked my socks off. It’s a crisp slice of autofiction about his father coming to visit him while he is a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Nam (the character) is ambivalent about whether to write about his family’s history of escaping Vietnam by boat, but as a deadline looms he decides to go for it, no matter what his father might think. There’s a coy remark here from one of his friends: “you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. … You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires [not in this collection!] and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”

So there you have four of the story plots in a nutshell. “Cartagena” is an interesting enough inside look at a Colombian gang, but Le’s strategy for revealing that these characters would be operating in a foreign language is to repeatedly use the construction “X has Y years” for giving ages, which I found annoying. “Meeting Elise” is the painter-with-hemorrhoids one (though I would have titled it “A Big Deal”) and has Henry nervously awaiting his reunion with his teenage daughter, a cello prodigy. There’s a Philip Roth air to that one. “Hiroshima” is brief and dreamy, and works because of the dramatic irony between what readers know and the narrator does not. “The Boat,” the final story, is the promised Vietnam adventure, but took forever to get to. I skimmed/skipped two stories of 50+ pages, “Halflead Bay,” set among Australian teens, and “Tehran Calling.”

It’s a shame that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the first story. The settings and styles felt too disparate overall, with no linking theme. I know that authors are supposed to be able to write about whatever they want, rather than just sticking to their own heritage – a provincial attitude the above quote is mocking, surely – but I had to wonder why these stories mattered to the author, and thus why they should matter to me. As far as I can tell, this is all Le has published. He won another five awards for it, and landed on the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 list in 2008. What happened after that?? (Public library)

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (2020)

I’d heard such good things about this collection after its U.S. release (it was a National Book Award finalist and won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award and more), so was delighted to learn that it was coming to the UK earlier this year. These nine stories, mostly set among Black women in the Southern USA, are bold and sexy. The opening pair is a particularly provocative one-two punch. In “Eula,” two friends with benefits meet up in a hotel on New Year’s Eve 2000, as they do every year; narrator Caroletta is committed to this relationship, while Eula is only killing time until she can marry a man as everyone expects. In “Not-Daniel,” a man and woman have sex in a car parked behind a hospice to try to forget that their mothers are dying inside.

“How to Make Love to a Physicist,” told in the second person, is about an art teacher scared to embark on a relationship with a seemingly perfect man she meets at a conference. “Dear Sister,” in the form of a long, gossipy letter, is about a tangled set of half-siblings. “Jael” alternates a young teen’s diary entries and her great-grandmother’s fretting over what to do with her wild ward. (The biblical title takes on delicious significance later on.) Multiple characters clash with authority figures about church attendance, with the decision to leave the fold coinciding with claiming autonomy or rejecting hypocrisy.

“Peach Cobbler” and “Snowfall” were my two favourites. In the former, reminiscent of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, Olivia’s mother has been having a long-term affair with the pastor, for whom she bakes a special dessert she denies her own daughter (“I’m not going to raise [my child] to go through life expecting it to be sweet, when for her, it ain’t going to be”). The latter has Arletha and Rhonda suffering through a Midwest winter and dreaming of a Southern crab boil, but fearing they can never go home to mothers who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their bond as anything other than friendship (“like a beautiful quilt in summertime, my mother’s love was the suffocating kind”).

The insight into familial and romantic relationships, the frank bisexuality, the allusions to scripture and churchgoing traditions, and the folksy foods and metaphors all made this stand out for me. The collection tails off with two unmemorable stories, but the previous seven are more than compelling enough for me to recommend this to your attention.

With thanks to Pushkin Press (the ONE imprint) for the proof copy for review.

Anthropology: and a Hundred Other Stories by Dan Rhodes (2000)

I should have known, after reading When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (an obvious satire on Richard Dawkins’s atheism) in 2017, that Dan Rhodes’s humour wasn’t for me. However, I generally love flash fiction so thought I might as well give these 101 stories – all about 100 words, or one paragraph, long – a go when I found a copy in a giveaway box across the street. Each has a one-word title, proceeding alphabetically from A to W, and many begin “My girlfriend…” as an unnamed bloke reflects on a relationship. Most of the setups are absurd; the girlfriends’ names (Foxglove, Miracle, Nightjar) tell you so, if nothing else.

There’s a kind of ‘nothing sacred’ approach here, with death, disability, race and gender the fodder for any number of gags. For example, in the title story the ex-girlfriend “went to Mongolia to study the gays. … It breaks my heart to think of her herding those yaks in the freezing hills, … nothing but a handlebar moustache to keep her top lip warm.” Or “Taxidermy”: “Columbine broke her neck by mistake. I took her to the taxidermist, and they delivered to my house a fortnight later. When I unwrapped the package I found the wrong girl.” I marked out a couple that I liked, “Beauty” and “Eggs,” but 2/101 is a poor return. Flippant, repetitive and ridiculous; best avoided. (Free from a neighbour)

Currently reading: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, Hearts & Bones by Niamh Mulvey

Up next: The Quarry by Ben Halls, The High Places by Fiona McFarlane, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Four for #WITMonth: Jansson, Lamarche, Lunde and Vogt

I’ve managed four novels for this year’s Women in Translation month: a nostalgic, bittersweet picture of island summers poised between childhood and old age; a brief, impressionistic account of domestic violence and rape; the third in a series looking at how climate change and species loss reverberate amid family situations; and a visceral meditation on women’s bodies and relationships. Two of these were review copies from the recently launched Héloïse Press, which “champions world-wide female talent”.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972; 1974)

[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]

It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.

This was only the second time I’ve read one of Jansson’s books aimed at adults (as opposed to five from the Moomins series). Whereas A Winter Book didn’t stand out to me when I read it in 2012 – though I will try it again this winter, having acquired a free copy from a neighbour – this was a lovely read, so evocative of childhood and of languid summers free from obligation. For two months, Sophia and Grandmother go for mini adventures on their tiny Finnish island. Each chapter is almost like a stand-alone story in a linked collection. They make believe and welcome visitors and weather storms and poke their noses into a new neighbour’s unwanted construction.

Six-year-old Sophia, based on Jansson’s niece of the same name, is precocious and opinionated, liable to change her mind in an instant. In “The Cat,” one of my favourite stand-alone bits, she’s fed up with their half-feral pet who kills lots of birds and swaps him for a friend’s soppy lap cat, but then regrets it. She’s learning that logic and emotion sometimes contradict each other, which becomes clearer as she peppers Grandmother with questions about religion and superstition.

As is common to Jansson’s books, there’s a melancholy undercurrent here.

Everything was fine, and yet everything was overshadowed by a great sadness. It was August, and the weather was sometimes stormy and sometimes nice, but for Grandmother, no matter what happened, it was only time on top of time, since everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.

Sophia’s mother died, and although her grandmother has the greater presence, Papa is also around, dealing with practicalities in the background. Death stalks around the edges, reminding Grandmother of her mortality through bouts of vertigo that have her grabbing for her heart medication. On just the second page we have this memento mori:

“When are you going to die?” the child asked.

And Grandmother answered, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

And so it doesn’t feel like our concern either; the focus is on the now, on these beautiful little moments of connection across the generations – like in “Playing Venice,” when Grandmother stays up all night rebuilding Sophia’s model city that was washed away by the rain. (Public library)

The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche (2014; 2022)

[Winner of an English PEN Award; translated from the French by Katherine Gregor]

In a hypnotic monologue, a woman tells of her time with a violent partner (the man before, or “Manfore”) who thinks her reaction to him is disproportionate and all due to the fact that she has never processed being raped two decades ago. When she goes in for a routine breast scan, she shows the doctor her bruised arm, wanting there to be a definitive record of what she’s gone through. It’s a bracing echo of the moment she walked into a police station to report the sexual assault (and oh but the questions the male inspector asked her are horrible).

The novella opens with an image that returns in dreams but is almost more a future memory of what might have been: “I went down into a ravine and, at the bottom, found a dead woman. She was lying in a shroud, on a carpet of fallen leaves.” I read this in one sitting – er, yoga session – and it has stayed in my mind in intense flashes like that and the flounce of her red dress on the summer day that turned into a nightmare. At an intense 70 pages, this reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s concise autofiction (I’ve reviewed Happening and I Remain in Darkness). An introduction by Dr Dominique Carlini-Versini contextualizes the work by considering the treatment of rape in contemporary French women’s writing.

The Memory of the Air will be published on 26 September. With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.

The Last Wild Horses by Maja Lunde (2019; 2022)

[Translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley]

The third in Lunde’s “Climate Quartet,” with its recurring elements of migration, shortages and environmental collapse. Always, though, the overall theme is parent–child relationships and the love that might be the only thing that keeps us going in the face of unspeakable challenges. Here she returns to the tripartite structure of The History of Bees (much my favourite of the three): a historical strand, a near-contemporary one, and a dystopian future story line. The link between the three is Przewalski’s horses (aka takhi).

In the early 1880s, Mikhail Alexandrovich Kovrov, assistant director of St. Petersburg Zoo, is brought the hide and skull of an ancient horse species assumed extinct. Although a timorous man who still lives with his mother, he becomes part of an expedition to Mongolia to bring back live specimens. In 1992, Karin, who has been obsessed with Przewalski’s horses since encountering them as a child in Nazi Germany, spearheads a mission to return the takhi to Mongolia and set up a breeding population. With her is her son Matthias, tentatively sober after years of drug abuse. In 2064 Norway, Eva and her daughter Isa are caretakers of a decaying wildlife park that houses a couple of wild horses. When a climate migrant comes to stay with them and the electricity goes off once and for all, they have to decide what comes next. This future story line engaged me the most.

I appreciated some aspects: queer and middle-aged romances, the return of a character from The End of the Ocean, the consideration across all three plots of what makes a good mother. However, the horses seemed neither here nor there. There are also many, many animal deaths. Perhaps an unsentimental attitude is necessary to reflect past and future values, and the apparent cruelty of natural processes, but it limits the book’s appeal to animal lovers. Maybe the tone fits the Norwegian prose, which the translator describes as lean.

The fourth book of the quartet, publishing in Norway next month, is called something like The Dream of a Tree; a focus on trees would be a draw for me. After the disappointment of Books 2 and 3, I’m unsure whether I want to bother with the final volume, but it makes sense to do so, if only to grasp Lunde’s full vision. (Public library)

What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt (2020; 2022)

[Translated from the German by Caroline Waight]

Vogt’s Swiss-set second novel is about a tight-knit matriarchal family whose threads have started to unravel. For Rahel, motherhood has taken her away from her vocation as a singer. Boris stepped up when she was pregnant with another man’s baby and has been as much of a father to Rico as to Leni, the daughter they had together afterwards. But now Rahel’s postnatal depression is stopping her from bonding with the new baby, and she isn’t sure this quartet is going to make it in the long term.

Meanwhile, Rahel’s sister Fenna knows she’s pregnant but refuses a doctor’s care. When she comes to stay with Rahel, she confides that the encounter with her partner, Luc, that led to conception was odd, rough; maybe not consensual. And all this time, the women’s mother, Verena, has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. All three characters appear to be matter-of-factly bisexual; Rahel and Fenna’s father has long been out of the picture, replaced in Verena’s affections by Inge.

As I was reading, I kept thinking of the declaration running through A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: “This is a female text.” Vogt’s vision is all breasts and eggs, genitals actual and metaphorical. I loved the use of food in the novel: growing up, the girls cherished “silly nights” when their mother prepared an egg feast and paired it with a feminist lecture on reproduction. Late on, there’s a wonderful scene when the three main characters gorge on preserved foodstuffs from the cellar and share their secrets. (Their language is so sexually frank; would anyone really talk to their mother and siblings in that way?!) As in the Lunde, the main question is what it means to be a mother, but negotiating their relationships with men stretches the bonds of this feminine trio. One for fans of Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney.

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

Recommended April Releases by Amy Bloom, Sarah Manguso & Sara Rauch

Just two weeks until moving day – we’ve got a long weekend ahead of us of sanding, painting, packing and gardening. As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been so good as to send me. Today I review three short works: the story of accompanying a beloved husband to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, a coolly perceptive novella of American girlhood, and a vivid memoir of two momentous relationships. (April was a big month for new books: I have another 6–8 on the go that I’ll be catching up on in the future.) All:

 

In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom

“We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.”

(Ameche family saying)

Given the psychological astuteness of her fiction, it’s no surprise that Bloom is a practicing psychotherapist. She treats her own life with the same compassionate understanding, and even though the main events covered in this brilliantly understated memoir only occurred two and a bit years ago, she has remarkable perspective and avoids self-pity and mawkishness. Her husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. But he needed Bloom’s help.

“I worry, sometimes, that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out. It seems to me that I’m doing the right thing, in supporting Brian in his decision, but it would feel better and easier if he could make all the arrangements himself and I could just be a dutiful duckling, following in his wake. Of course, if he could make all the arrangements himself, he wouldn’t have Alzheimer’s”

U.S. cover

She achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality. Research into acquiring sodium pentobarbital via doctor friends soon hit a dead end and they settled instead on flying to Switzerland for an assisted suicide through Dignitas – a proven but bureaucracy-ridden and expensive method. The first quarter of the book is a day-by-day diary of their January 2020 trip to Zurich as they perform the farce of a couple on vacation. A long central section surveys their relationship – a second chance for both of them in midlife – and how Brian, a strapping Yale sportsman and accomplished architect, gradually descended into confusion and dependence. The assisted suicide itself, and the aftermath as she returns to the USA and organizes a memorial service, fill a matter-of-fact 20 pages towards the close.

Hard as parts of this are to read, there are so many lovely moments of kindness (the letter her psychotherapist writes about Brian’s condition to clinch their place at Dignitas!) and laughter, despite it all (Brian’s endless fishing stories!). While Bloom doesn’t spare herself here, diligently documenting times when she was impatient and petty, she doesn’t come across as impossibly brave or stoic. She was just doing what she felt she had to, to show her love for Brian, and weeping all the way. An essential, compelling read.

With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.

 

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso

I’ve read Manguso’s four nonfiction works and especially love her Wellcome Book Prize-shortlisted medical memoir The Two Kinds of Decay. The aphoristic style she developed in her two previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. She’s an only child whose parents no doubt were doing their best after emotionally stunted upbringings but never managed to make her feel unconditionally loved. Praise is always qualified and stingily administered. Ruthie feels like a burden and escapes into her imaginings of how local Brahmins – Cabots and Emersons and Lowells – lived. Her family is cash-poor compared to their neighbours and loves nothing more than a trip to the dump: “My parents weren’t after shiny things or even beautiful things; they simply liked getting things that stupid people threw away.”

The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. She has to make everything about her; any minor success of her daughter’s is a blow to her own ego. I marked out an excruciating passage that made me feel so sorry for this character. A European friend of the family visits and Ruthie’s mother serves corn muffins that he seems to appreciate.

My mother brought up her triumph for years. … She’d believed his praise was genuine. She hadn’t noticed that he’d pegged her as a person who would snatch up any compliment into the maw of her unloved, throbbing little heart.

U.S. cover

At school, as in her home life, Ruthie dissociates herself from every potentially traumatic situation. “My life felt unreal and I felt half-invested. I felt indistinct, like someone else’s dream.” Her friend circle is an abbreviated A–Z of girlhood: Amber, Bee, Charlie and Colleen. “Odd” men – meaning sexual predators – seem to be everywhere and these adolescent girls are horribly vulnerable. Molestation is such an open secret in the world of the novel that Ruthie assumes this is why her mother is the way she is.

While the #MeToo theme didn’t resonate with me personally, so much else did. Chemistry class, sleepovers, getting one’s first period, falling off a bike: this is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them. I found myself inhabiting memories I hadn’t revisited for years, and a thought came that had perhaps never occurred to me before: for our time and area, my family was poor, too. I’m grateful for my ignorance: what scarred Ruthie passed me by; I was a purely happy child. But I think my sister, born seven years earlier, suffered more, in ways that she’d recognize here. This has something of the flavour of Eileen and My Name Is Lucy Barton and reads like autofiction even though it’s not presented as such. The style and contents may well be divisive. I’ll be curious to hear if other readers see themselves in its sketches of childhood.

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

XO by Sara Rauch

Sara Rauch won the Electric Book Award for her short story collection What Shines from It. This compact autobiographical parcel focuses on a point in her early thirties when she lived with a long-time female partner, “Piper”, and had an intense affair with “Liam”, a fellow writer she met at a residency.

“no one sets out in search of buried treasure when they’re content with life as it is”

“Longing isn’t cheating (of this I was certain), even when it brushes its whiskers against your cheek.”

Adultery is among the most ancient human stories we have, a fact Rauch acknowledges by braiding through the narrative her musings on religion and storytelling by way of her Catholic upbringing and interest in myths and fairy tales. She’s looking for the patterns of her own experience and how endings make way for new life. The title has multiple meanings: embraces, crossroads and coming full circle. Like a spider’s web, her narrative pulls in many threads to make an ordered whole. All through, bisexuality is a baseline, not something that needs to be interrogated.

This reminded me of a number of books I’ve read about short-lived affairs – Tides, The Instant – and about renegotiating relationships in a queer life – The Fixed Stars, In the Dream House – but felt most like reading a May Sarton journal for how intimately it recreates daily routines of writing, cooking, caring for cats, and weighing up past, present and future. Lovely stuff.

With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler and Autofocus Books for the e-copy for review.

Will you seek out one or more of these books?

What other April releases can you recommend?

Recommended March Releases: Broder, Fuller, Lamott, Polzin

Three novels that range in tone from carnal allegorical excess to quiet, bittersweet reflection via low-key menace; and essays about keeping the faith in the most turbulent of times.

 

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Rachel’s body and mommy issues are major and intertwined: she takes calorie counting and exercise to an extreme, and her therapist has suggested that she take a 90-day break from contact with her overbearing mother. Her workdays at a Hollywood talent management agency are punctuated by carefully regimented meals, one of them a 16-ounce serving of fat-free frozen yogurt from a shop run by Orthodox Jews. One day it’s not the usual teenage boy behind the counter, but his overweight older sister, Miriam. Miriam makes Rachel elaborate sundaes instead of her usual abstemious cups and Rachel lets herself eat them even though it throws her whole diet off. She realizes she’s attracted to Miriam, who comes to fill the bisexual Rachel’s fantasies, and they strike up a tentative relationship over Chinese food and classic film dates as well as Shabbat dinners at Miriam’s family home.

If you’re familiar with The Pisces, Broder’s Women’s Prize-longlisted debut, you should recognize the pattern here: a deep exploration of wish fulfilment and psychological roles, wrapped up in a sarcastic and sexually explicit narrative. Fat becomes not something to fear but a source of comfort; desire for food and for the female body go hand in hand. Rachel says, “It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”

With the help of her therapist, a rabbi that appears in her dreams, and the recurring metaphor of the golem, Rachel starts to grasp the necessity of mothering herself and becoming the shaper of her own life. I was uneasy that Miriam, like Theo in The Pisces, might come to feel more instrumental than real, but overall this was an enjoyable novel that brings together its disparate subjects convincingly. (But is it hot or smutty? You tell me.)

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

At a glance, the cover for Fuller’s fourth novel seems to host a riot of luscious flowers and fruit, but look closer and you’ll see the daisies are withering and the grapes rotting; there’s a worm exiting the apple and flies are overseeing the decomposition. Just as the image slowly reveals signs of decay, Fuller’s novel gradually unveils the drawbacks of its secluded village setting. Jeanie and Julius Seeder, 51-year-old twins, lived with their mother, Dot, until she was felled by a stroke. They’d always been content with a circumscribed, self-sufficient existence, but now their whole way of life is called into question. Their mother’s rent-free arrangement with the landowners, the Rawsons, falls through, and the cash they keep in a biscuit tin in the cottage comes nowhere close to covering her debts, let alone a funeral.

During the Zoom book launch event, Fuller confessed that she’s “incapable of writing a happy novel,” so consider that your warning of how bleak things will get for her protagonists – though by the end there are pinpricks of returning hope. Before then, though, readers navigate an unrelenting spiral of rural poverty and bad luck, exacerbated by illiteracy and the greed and unkindness of others. One of Fuller’s strengths is creating atmosphere, and there are many images and details here that build the picture of isolation and pathos, such as a piano marooned halfway to a derelict caravan along a forest track and Jeanie having to count pennies so carefully that she must choose between toilet paper and dish soap at the shop.

Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional North Wessex Downs village not far from where I live. I loved spotting references to local places and to folk music – Jeanie and Julius might not have book smarts or successful careers, but they inherited Dot’s love of music and when they pick up a fiddle and guitar they tune in to the ancient magic of storytelling. Much of the novel is from Jeanie’s perspective and she makes for an out-of-the-ordinary yet relatable POV character. I found the novel heavy on exposition, which somewhat slowed my progress through it, but it’s comparable to Fuller’s other work in that it focuses on family secrets, unusual states of mind, and threatening situations. She’s rapidly become one of my favourite contemporary novelists, and I’d recommend this to you if you’ve liked her other work or Fiona Mozley’s Elmet.

With thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for the proof copy for review.

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott

These are Lamott’s best new essays (if you don’t count Small Victories, which reprinted some of her greatest hits) in nearly a decade. The book is a fitting follow-up to 2018’s Almost Everything in that it tackles the same central theme: how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst.

One key thing that has changed in Lamott’s life since her last book is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. “How’s married life?” people can’t seem to resist asking her. In thinking of marriage she writes about love and friendship, constancy and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Her neurotic nature flares up every now and again, but Neal helps to talk her down. Fragments of her early family life come back as she considers all her parents were up against and concludes that they did their best (“How paltry and blocked our family love was, how narrow the bandwidth of my parents’ spiritual lives”).

Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time for her, whether it’s a variety show that feels like it will never end, a four-day power cut in California, the kitten inexplicably going missing, or young people taking to the streets to protest about the climate crisis they’re inheriting. A short postscript entitled “Covid College” gives thanks for “the blessings of COVID: we became more reflective, more contemplative.”

The prose and anecdotes feel fresher here than in several of the author’s other recent books. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle. Some of these essays will be well worth rereading and deserve to become classics in the Lamott canon, especially “Soul Lather,” “Snail Hymn,” “Light Breezes,” and “One Winged Love.”

I read an advanced digital review copy via NetGalley. Available from Riverhead in the USA and SPCK in the UK.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin

Polzin’s debut novel is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. As in recent autofiction by Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez, readers find observations of other people (and animals), a record of their behaviour and words; facts about the narrator herself are few and far between, though it is possible to gradually piece together a backstory for her. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

See my full review at BookBrowse. I was also lucky enough to do an interview with the author.

I read an advanced digital review copy via Edelweiss. Available from Doubleday in the USA. To be released in the UK by Picador tomorrow, April 1st.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Three on a Theme: “Heart”

From a vibrant novel about trauma and second chances to a cultural history of our knowledge of the organ and its symbols, via a true story of the effects of being struck by lightning, what might these three disparate books have to tell us about the human heart on Valentine’s Day?

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (2018)

This was criminally overlooked a few years ago, though I do remember Naomi F. featuring it on The Writes of Womxn. Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighborhoods of the Bay Area in California, it throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. There are lots of different ethnicities mentioned, and snippets of various languages (not just Tagalog, the one I knew of previously) run through the text, sometimes translated but often not. It’s a complex, confident debut novel that references episodes from the history of the Philippines of which I was mostly ignorant – genocide and reforms, dictatorship and a Marxist resistance.

Geronima is a family name for the De Veras; not many realize that Hero, in her mid-thirties and newly arrived in the USA as an undocumented immigrant, and her cousin Roni, her uncle Pol’s seven-year-old daughter, share the same first name. Hero is estranged from her wealthy parents: they were friendly with the Marcos clan, while she ran away to serve as a doctor in the New People’s Army for 10 years. We gradually learn that she was held in a prison camp for two years and subjected to painful interrogations. Still psychologically as well as physically marked by the torture, she is reluctant to trust anyone. She stays under the radar, just taking Roni to and from school and looking after her while her parents are at work.

When Roni’s mother Paz, a medical professional, turns to traditional practices for help with Roni’s extreme eczema, Hero takes Roni to the Boy’s BBQ & Grill / Mai’s Hair and Beauty complex to see Adela Cabugao, a Filipina faith healer. The restaurant becomes a refuge for Hero and Roni – a place where they hang out with Adela’s granddaughter, Rosalyn, and her friends in the long hours Paz is away at her hospital jobs, eating and watching videos or reading Asian comics. Over the next few years Rosalyn introduces Hero to American holidays and customs. Castillo is matter-of-fact about Hero’s hook-ups with guys and girls but never strident about a bisexuality label. Hero pursues sex but remains wary of romance.

The everydayness of life here – car rides, cassette tapes, job applications, foil trays of food – contrasts with too-climactic memories. Though the plot can meander, there’s forward motion in that Hero shifts from a survival mindset into an assurance of safety that allows her to start rebuilding her life. I loved the 1990s as a setting. The characters shine and the dialogue (not in speech marks) feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story. My only minor disappointment was that second-person narration does not recur beyond a chapter about Paz and one about Rosalyn. The title riffs on a classic of Filipino American literature, America Is in the Heart (1946) by Carlos Bulosan, though I didn’t explore that comparison; it’s a novel that opens up real Google wormholes, should you take up the challenge. Castillo’s vibrant, distinctive voice reminded me of authors from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Viet Thanh Nguyen. Please tell me she has another book in the works.

Favorite line: “Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you immigrate, there are countries in you you’ll never leave.”

Words about the heart:

“Hero had no truck with people for whom the heart was a dreamt-up thing, held together by divine saliva, a place where gods of love still made their beds. A heart was something you could buy on the street, six to a skewer … served with garlicky rice and atsuete oil.”

“Hero had never even felt ambivalence toward Pol … She’d only ever known what it felt like to love him, to keep the minor altar of admiration for him in her heart well cleaned, its flowers rotless and blooming. What she hadn’t known was that her love was a room, cavernous, and hate could enter there, too; curl up in the same bed, blanketed and sleep-warm.”

“May tinik sa puso. You know what that means? Like she has a fishbone in the heart. She’s angry about something.”


Source: Free from a neighbor

My rating:

A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich (1994)

In August 1991, as a summer thunderstorm approached her Wyoming ranch, Ehrlich was struck by lightning. Although she woke up in a pool of blood, her dogs stayed by her side and she was able to haul herself the quarter-mile home and call 911 before she collapsed completely. Being hit by so much electricity (10–30 million volts) had lasting effects on her health. Her heart rhythms were off and she struggled with fatigue for years to come. In a sense, she had died and come back to a subtly different life.

After relocating to the California coast, she shadows her cardiologist and observes open-heart surgery, attends the annual Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Conference, and explores a new liminal land of beaches and islands. Again and again, she uses metaphors of the bardo and the phoenix to make sense of the in-between state she perhaps still inhabits. Full-on medical but also intriguingly mystical, this is another solid memoir from a phenomenal author. I know of her more as a nature/travel writer (This Cold Heaven is fantastic) and have another of her books on the shelf, The Solace of Open Spaces.

Words about the heart:

“Above and beyond the drama of cardiac arrest, or the threat of it, is the metaphorical territory of the heart: if love desists, if passion arrests, if compassion stops circulating through the arteries of society, then civilization, such as it is, will stop.”

“The thoracic cavity must have been the place where human music began, the first rhythm was the beat of the heart, and after that initial thump, waltzes and nocturnes, preludes and tangos rang out, straight up through flesh and capillary, nerve ganglion and epidermal layer, resonating in sternum bone: it wasn’t light that created the world but sound.”


Source: Birthday gift (secondhand) a couple years ago

My rating:

Heart: The Story of Its Myths and Meanings by Gail Godwin (2001)

I’d read one novel and one memoir by Godwin and was excited to learn that she had once written a wide-ranging study of the religious and literary meanings overlaid on the heart. While there are some interesting pinpricks here, the delivery is shaky: she starts off with a dull, quotation-stuffed, chronological timeline, all too thorough in its plod from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Industrial Revolution. I quickly resorted to skimming and my eye alighted on Chinese philosophy (“True knowledge, Confucius taught, lies in the heart. He created and taught an ethical system that emphasized ‘human-heartedness,’ stressing balance in the heart”) and Dickens’s juxtaposition of facts and emotion in Hard Times.

Part Two, “Heart Themes in Life and Art,” initially seemed more promising in that it opens with the personal stories of her half-brother’s death in a murder–suicide and her mother’s fatal heart attack while driving a car, but I didn’t glean much from her close readings of, e.g. Joseph Conrad and Elizabeth Bowen. Still, I’ll keep this on the shelf as a reference book for any specific research I might do in the future.


Source: Bookbarn International on February 2020 visit (my last time there)

My rating:

If you read just one … It’s got to be America Is Not the Heart. (Though, if you’re also interested in first-person medical accounts, add on A Match to the Heart.)

Young Writer of the Year Award 2020: Shortlist Reviews and Predictions

Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s panelists, especially blogging friend Marina Sofia, to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to hearing who they choose as their shadow panel winner on December 3rd and then attending the virtual prize ceremony on December 10th.

At the time of the shortlisting, I happened to have already read Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and was halfway through Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno. I got the poetry collection Surge by Jay Bernard out from the library to have another go (after DNFing it last year), and the kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a poetry collection and a novel, so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations. Here are my brief thoughts on all five nominees.

 

Surge by Jay Bernard (2019)

As a writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, a research centre for radical Black history, in 2016, Bernard investigated the New Cross Massacre, a fire that killed 13 young people in 1981. In 2017, the tragedy found a horrific echo in the Grenfell Tower fire, which left 72 dead. This debut poetry collection bridges that quarter-century through protest poems from various perspectives, giving voice to victims and their family members and exploring the interplay between race, sexuality and violence. Patois comes in at several points, most notably in “Songbook.” I especially liked “Peg” and “Pride,” and the indictment of government indifference in “Blank”: “It-has-nothing-to-do-with-us today issued this statement: / those involved have defended their actions and been … acquitted / retired with full pay”. On the whole, I found it difficult to fully engage with this collection, but I am reliably informed that Bernard’s protest poems have more impact when performed aloud.

Readalikes: In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller, A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

My rating:

 

Inferno by Catherine Cho (2020)

Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She and her husband had returned to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration at her in-laws’ home. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced cameras were watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in a hospital emergency room, followed by a mental health ward. Cho alternates between her time in the mental hospital and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown, weaving in her family history and Korean sayings and legends. Twelve days: That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory. She captures extremes of suffering and joy in this vivid account. (Reviewed in full here.)

Readalikes: An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame and Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong

My rating:

 

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020)

At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens in Hong Kong and soon comes to a convenient arrangement with her aloof banker friend, Julian, who lets her live with him without paying rent and buys her whatever she wants. They have sex, yes, but he’s not her boyfriend per se, so when he’s transferred to London for six months, there’s no worry about hard feelings when her new friendship with Edith Zhang turns romantic. It gets a little more complicated, though, when Julian returns and she has to explain these relationships to her two partners and to herself. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it would be an interesting plot, and the hook-up culture couldn’t be more foreign to me. But with Ava Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners (“I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat”). (Reviewed in full here.)

Readalikes: Besotted by Melissa Duclos and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

My rating:

 

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (2020)

In the title poem, the arboreal fungus from the cover serves as “a bright, ancestral messenger // bursting through from one realm to another” like “the cones of God, the Pentecostal flame”. This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men: “I came back often, // year on year, kneeling and being knelt for / in acts of secret worship, and now / each woodland smells quietly of sex”. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. A central section of translations of the middle-Irish legend “Buile Suibhne” is less memorable than the gorgeous portraits of flora and fauna and the moving words dedicated to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you” and “In this world, I believe, / there is nothing lost, only translated”.

Readalikes: Physical by Andrew McMillan and If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton

My rating:

 

Nightingale by Marina Kemp (2020)

Marguerite Demers, a 24-year-old nurse, has escaped Paris to be a live-in carer for elderly Jérôme Lanvier in southern France. From the start, she senses she’s out of place here – “She felt, as always in this village, that she was being observed”. She strikes up a friendship with a fellow outsider, an Iranian émigrée named Suki, who, in this story set in 2002, stands out for wearing a hijab. Everyone knows everyone here, and everyone has history with everyone else – flirtations, feuds, affairs, and more. Brigitte Brochon, unhappily married to a local farmer, predicts Marguerite will be just like the previous nurses who failed to hack it in service to the curmudgeonly Monsieur Lanvier. But Marguerite sticks up for herself and, though plagued by traumatic memories, makes her own bid for happiness. The novel deals sensitively with topics like bisexuality, euthanasia, and family estrangement, but the French provincial setting and fairly melodramatic plot struck me as old-fashioned. Still, the writing is strong enough to keep an eye out for what Kemp writes next. (U.S. title: Marguerite.)

Readalikes: French-set novels by Joanne Harris and Rose Tremain; The Hoarder by Jess Kidd

My rating:

 

General thoughts:

After last year’s unexpected winner – Raymond Antrobus for his poetry collection The Perseverance – I would have said that it’s time for a novel by a woman to win. However, I feel like a Dolan win would be too much of a repeat of 2017’s win (for Sally Rooney), and Kemp’s debut novel isn’t quite up to scratch. Much as I enjoyed Inferno, I can’t see it winning over these judges (three of whom are novelists: Kit de Waal, Sebastian Faulks and Tessa Hadley), though it would be suited to the Wellcome Book Prize if that comes back in 2021. So, to my surprise, I think it’s going to be another year for poetry.

I’ve been following the shadow panel’s thoughts via Marina’s blog and the others’ Instagram accounts and it looks like they are united in their admiration for the poetry collections, particularly the Hewitt. That would be my preference, too: I respond better to theme and style in poetry (Hewitt) than to voice and message (Bernard). However, I think that in 2020 the Times may try to trade its rather fusty image for something more woke, bearing in mind the Black Lives Matter significance and the unprecedented presence of a nonbinary author.

 

My predictions:

Shadow panel winner: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

Official winner: Surge by Jay Bernard

 

Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?

The Group by Lara Feigel (and Mary McCarthy)

Lara Feigel’s memoir Free Woman was one of my favourite books of 2018. In it she interrogates conventions of marriage and motherhood while rereading the works of Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962), in particular, dramatizes women’s struggles to combine their disparate roles into a harmonious identity. Drawing inspiration from Lessing as well as from another early feminist novel, The Group by Mary McCarthy (more on this below), Feigel’s debut novel crafts a kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018.

Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly and Priss met at a picnic while studying at Oxbridge and decided to rent a house together. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have branched in slightly different directions. Kay is an English teacher but has always wanted to be a novelist like her American husband, Harald. Priss is a stay-at-home mother excited to be opening a café. Polly, a gynaecological consultant at St Thomas’s Hospital, is having an affair with a married colleague. Helena, a single documentary presenter, decides she wants to have a baby and pursues insemination via a gay friend.

Narrating her friends’ lives as well as her own is Stella, an editor at a Faber-like publishing house whose director (also Helena’s uncle) is under investigation for sexual misconduct. Stella, a stand-in for the author, has split from her husband and has a new baby via IVF as well as an older child; this hint of autofiction lends the book an intimacy it might have lacked with an omniscient perspective. Although you have to suspend disbelief in a few places – could Stella really know so many details of her friends’ lives? – it feels apt that she can only understand these other women in relation to herself. Her voice can be catty, but is always candid, and Feigel is astute on the performative aspects of femininity.

Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by about 20 years and you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. It is a sexually frank and socially engaged narrative that arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The characters express guilt over lamenting middle-class problems while there is such suffering in the wider world – we glimpse this in Polly’s work with African girls who have undergone genital mutilation. The diversity is limited to Black boyfriends, Helena’s bisexuality, and the fact that one group member decides not to have children (that 1 in 5 is statistically accurate).

The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group, though, is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Stella even sees herself as an amateur anthropologist:

So here we are then. Five exact contemporaries who once shared a cluttered, thin-walled student house off the Cowley Road, all privileged, white, middle-class, all vestigial hangers-on, left over from an era when we received free educations at our elite university and then emerged into a world where we could still just about find jobs and buy flats, provided with opportunities for selfishness and leisure by our cleaners and our childminders. Nothing very eventful happens to us, but that gives more room for the ethnographer in me to get to work.

Feigel previously wrote two group biographies of cultural figures of the Second World War era, and she applies that precise skill set – capturing the atmosphere of a time period; noting similarities but also clear distinctions between people – to great effect here. You’ll recognize aspects of yourself in all of the characters, and be reminded of how grateful you are for (or how much you wish you had) friends whom you know will always be there for you. It’s an absorbing and relevant novel that ranks among my few favourites of the year so far.

My rating:


The Group was published by JM Originals (John Murray) on July 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

Readalikes: The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and Expectation by Anna Hope.

See Susan’s review also.

 

The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)

As soon as I heard about Lara Feigel’s forthcoming novel, I unearthed the Mary McCarthy paperback I’d plucked from Bookbarn’s shelves in 2017. I decided to read Feigel’s first, lest it feel less than fresh; perhaps inevitably, McCarthy’s felt dated in comparison. I had trouble engaging with it as a whole, but still enjoyed contrasting the two books.

McCarthy focuses on eight girls from the Vassar class of ’33. Kay, the first to marry, has an upper-crust New York City wedding one week after graduation. But after Harald loses his theatre job, his cocktail habit and their luxury apartment soon deplete Kay’s Macy’s salary. Meanwhile, Dottie loses her virginity to Harald’s former neighbour in a surprisingly explicit scene. Contraception is complicated, but not without comic potential – as when Dottie confuses a pessary and a peccary. Career, romance, and motherhood are all fraught matters.

Feigel borrows the names of four of her five group members, plus those of some secondary characters, from McCarthy, with Stella a new character perhaps inspired in part by McCarthy’s Libby, who wants to work with books but, after delivering an earnest report on a 500-page pot-boiler, hears that “we really have no work that you’re uniquely qualified to do. You’re one of thousands of English majors who come pouring out of the colleges every June, stage-struck to go into publishing.” (That sure sounds familiar!)

Narrowing the circle and introducing a first-person narrator were wise choices that made Feigel’s version more accessible. Both, though, are characterized by forthright commentary and a shrewd understanding of human motivations. I’ll try again with McCarthy’s The Group someday, but for now I’m planning to pick up her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

Note: Mary McCarthy is one of the authors profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp.

Three May Releases: Climate Change, a Son’s Elegy, and Sexual Fluidity

I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.

 

When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray

Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.

She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.

Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.

Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)

Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.

Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.

My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.

 

Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle

“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”

A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.

I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”

In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.

The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.

My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.

 

The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.

By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)

And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.

Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.

I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).

I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.

There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.

I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Costello, O’Shaughnessy & Smyth

These three books – two novels and a memoir – pay loving tribute to a particular nineteenth- or twentieth-century writer. In each case, the author incorporates passages of pastiche, moving beyond thematic similarity to make their language an additional homage.

Although I enjoyed the three books very much, they differ in terms of how familiar you should be with the source material before embarkation. So while they were all reads for me, I have added a note below each review to indicate the level of prior knowledge needed.

 

The River Capture by Mary Costello

Luke O’Brien has taken a long sabbatical from his teaching job in Dublin and is back living at the family farm beside the river in Waterford. Though only in his mid-thirties, he seems like a man of sorrows, often dwelling on the loss of parents, aunts and romantic relationships with both men and women. He takes quiet pleasure in food, the company of pets, and books, including his extensive collection on James Joyce, about whom he’d like to write a tome of his own. The novel’s very gentle crisis comes when Luke falls for Ruth and it emerges that her late father ruined his beloved Aunt Ellen’s reputation.

At this point a troubled Luke is driven into 100+ pages of sinuous contemplation, a bravura section of short fragments headed by questions. Rather like a catechism, it’s a playful way of organizing his thoughts and likely more than a little Joycean in approach – I’ve read Portrait of the Artist and Dubliners but not Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, so I feel less than able to comment on the literary ventriloquism, but I found this a pleasingly over-the-top stream-of-consciousness that ranges from the profound (“What fear suddenly assails him? The arrival of the noonday demon”) to the scatological (“At what point does he urinate? At approximately three-quarters of the way up the avenue”).

While this doesn’t quite match Costello’s near-perfect novella, Academy Street, it’s an impressive experiment in voice and style, and the treatment of Luke’s bisexuality struck me as sensitive – an apt metaphorical manifestation of the novel’s focus on fluidity. (See also Susan’s excellent review.)

Why Joyce? “integrity … commitment to the quotidian … refusal to take conventions for granted”

Familiarity required: Moderate

Also recommended: The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy

Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel by a literary editor. The whole thing is a book within a book – fiction being written by Kate, an academic at London’s Queen Elizabeth College who’s preparing for two conferences on Eliot and a new co-taught course on life writing at the same time as she completes her novel, which blends biographical information and imagined scenes.

1857: Eliot is living with George Henry Lewes, her common-law husband, and working on Adam Bede, which becomes a runaway success, not least because of speculation about its anonymous author. 1880: The great author’s death leaves behind a mentally unstable widower 20 years her junior, John Walter Cross, once such a close family friend that she and Lewes called him “Nephew.”

Between these points are intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. Her estrangement from her dear brother (the model for Tom in The Mill on the Floss) is a plangent refrain, while interactions with female friends who have accepted the norms of marriage and motherhood reveal just how transgressive her life is perceived to be.

In the historical sections O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably, yet avoids the convoluted syntax that can make Eliot challenging. I might have liked a bit more of the contemporary story line, in which Kate and an alluring colleague make their way to Venice (the site of Eliot’s legendarily disastrous honeymoon trip with Cross), but by making this a minor thread O’Shaughnessy ensures that the spotlight remains on Eliot throughout.

Highlights: A cameo appearance by Henry James; a surprisingly sexy passage in which Cross and Eliot read Dante aloud to each other and share their first kiss.

Why Eliot? “As an artist, this was her task, to move the reader to see people in the round.”

Familiarity required: Low

Also recommended: 142 Strand by Rosemary Ashton, Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker, and My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

With thanks to Scribe UK for the free copy for review.

 

All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth

Smyth first read To the Lighthouse in Christmas 2001, during her junior year abroad at Oxford. Shortly thereafter her father had surgery in Boston to remove his bladder, one of many operations he’d had during a decade battling cancer. But even this new health scare wasn’t enough to keep him from returning to his habitual three bottles of wine a day. Woolf was there for Smyth during this crisis and all the time leading up to her father’s death, with Lighthouse and Woolf’s own life reflecting Smyth’s experience in unanticipated ways. The Smyths’ Rhode Island beach house, for instance, was reminiscent of the Stephens’ home in Cornwall. Woolf’s mother’s death was an end to the summer visits, and to her childhood; Lighthouse would become her elegy to those bygone days.

Often a short passage by or about Woolf is enough to launch Smyth back into her memories. As an only child, she envied the busy family life of the Ramsays in Lighthouse. She delves into the mystery of her parents’ marriage and her father’s faltering architecture career. She also undertakes Woolf tourism, including the Cornwall cottage, Knole, Charleston and Monk’s House (where Woolf wrote most of Lighthouse). Her writing is dreamy, mingling past and present as she muses on time and grief. The passages of Woolf pastiche are obvious but short enough not to overstay their welcome; as in the Costello, they tend to feature water imagery. It’s a most unusual book in the conception, but for Woolf fans especially, it works. However, I wished I had read Lighthouse more recently than 16.5 years ago – it’s one to reread.

Why Woolf? “I think it’s Woolf’s mastery of moments like these—moments that hold up a mirror to our private tumult while also revealing how much we as humans share—that most draws me to her.”

Undergraduate wisdom: “Woolf’s technique: taking a very complex (usually female) character and using her mind as an emblem of all minds” [copied from notes I took during a lecture on To the Lighthouse in a “Modern Wasteland” course during my sophomore year of college]

Familiarity required: High

Also recommended: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, and Adeline by Norah Vincent

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