Tag Archives: breast cancer

Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Erdrich, Mendelson, Ozeki) & Predictions

Tomorrow the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve become much more invested in this prize over the past few years and will be following the 2022 race especially closely – look out for a related announcement soon. In recent years the nominees have tended to cluster thematically, which can feel redundant. This longlist has a notably high ghost quotient. Two novels I review below feature unquiet spirits, an appearance by the author, and the magical powers of books. The third is a straightforward contemporary dysfunctional family story.

 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

My second from Erdrich (I gave Love Medicine, her first novel, 5 stars in 2020). I will be revisiting this in June because it is our first pick for my tenure in the Literary Wives online book club. For that post I’ll focus on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux, which I won’t mention in this more general response. I was worried that a take on very recent events – this is set in Minneapolis between 2019 and 2020 and covers the first six months of the pandemic plus local protests following George Floyd’s murder – would seem either rushed or dated. I’m still unsure how I feel about encountering Covid-19 in fiction (vs. I’ve read 20 or more nonfiction records now), but I think this novel functions as a sturdy time capsule.

Tookie, the narrator, has a tough exterior but a tender heart. When she spent 10 years in prison for a misunderstanding-cum-body snatching, books helped her survive, starting with the dictionary. Once she got out, she translated her love of words into work as a bookseller at Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s Minnesota independent bookshop (Louise herself is an occasional character). Bibliophiles are sure to enjoy the mentions of the books she presses into customers’ hands; there’s also a fun appendix of recommendations on particular topics.

However, the central mystery about Flora, a dead customer who haunts the store until Tookie figures out why she died and how to exorcise her, struck me as silly. I only appreciated this storyline to the extent that it explores authenticity (Flora may have fabricated her Native heritage) and the inescapability of history. I preferred real life: Tookie getting locked down with her stepdaughter and baby grandson and filling book orders from a closed shop.

Erdrich weaves in Indigenous customs naturally and the banter between the characters, including young shop employees, makes this hip and lighthearted, even as it deals with serious subjects. I smiled at the bookish lingo, like Tookie’s division of her reading into a Lazy Stack and a Hard Stack (“books I would avoid reading until some wellspring of mental energy was uncapped” – my occasional and set-aside titles could comprise the latter) and the “cowbirds,” self-published titles secreted on the shelves that aren’t found until inventory day. There’s also an excellent passage on novellas that I’ll be bringing out in November.

Like a vintage armchair, this is a little overstuffed, but so comfortable you’ll want to stay a while. (See also Laura’s review.) (Public library)

 

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~

Artists, dysfunctional families, and limited settings (here, one crumbling London house and its environs; and about two days across one weekend) are irresistible elements for me, and I don’t mind a work being peopled with mostly unlikable characters. That’s just as well, because the narrative orbits Ray Hanrahan, a monstrous narcissist who insists that his family put his painting career above all else. His wife, Lucia, is a sculptor who has always sacrificed her own art to ensure Ray’s success. But now Lucia, having survived breast cancer, has the chance to focus on herself. She’s tolerated his extramarital dalliances all along; why not see where her crush on MP Priya Menon leads? What with fresh love and the offer of her own exhibition in Venice, maybe she truly can start over in her fifties.

Ray and Lucia’s three grown children, Leah, Patrick and Jess, are all home for Ray’s new exhibition. They’re mere sketches: Leah is Ray’s staunchest supporter and is infatuated with the no-show caterer; Patrick’s mental health is shaky, interfering with his job prospects; Jess, a teacher in Edinburgh, is pregnant but not sure she’s committed to her boyfriend long term. I wanted more depth from all the characters, but especially the offspring. I also expected a climactic late scene on Hampstead Heath to come to more.

Still, the build-up to the exhibit (followed by a laughably pitiful reveal) and Lucia’s inner life form an adequately strong foundation for Mendelson’s sardonic prose. The dialogue, full of interruptions, is true to life. This is her fifth novel and called to mind Jami Attenberg’s and Claire Fuller’s work. (Liz found shades of Iris Murdoch. Susan loved it, too.) I wouldn’t say I’m compelled to seek out more by Mendelson, but this was a solid read. (Public library)

 

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favourite novels of the century (and one of my most popular Goodreads reviews ever), My Year of Meats was a terrific backlist read a couple of summers ago, and I’m eager to catch up on All Over Creation. So I’d built up this fourth Ozeki novel in my head, thinking a library setting and magic realist elements presaged something deliciously Murakami-esque.

What I actually found, having limped through it off and on for seven months, was something of a disappointment. A frank depiction of the mental health struggles of the Oh family? Great. A paean to how books and libraries can save us by showing us a way out of our own heads? A-OK. The problem is with the twee way that The Book narrates Benny’s story and engages him in a conversation about fate versus choice.

When Kenji Oh, a jazz musician, is run over by a chicken truck, Annabelle finds herself a single mother to Benny, a troubled teen who starts to hear everyday objects speaking to him. His voices and Annabelle’s hoarding habit jeopardize the viability of their household: Benny spends time on a psychiatric hospital ward for minors and Annabelle is threatened with eviction. For Benny, the library and the acquaintances he makes there – a fellow pedi-psych patient named Alice who calls herself The Aleph, an Eastern European philosopher who goes by The Bottleman (= Slavoj Žižek?), even the Ozeki figure tapping away on her laptop – may be his salvation; for Annabelle, it could be the book Tidy Magic (modelled on Marie Kondo’s work), written by a Buddhist nun. But until then, their stories get very dark indeed.

Concern for the principal pair and their relationship kept me reading even though this is too long and I wearied of Ozeki’s habit of literalizing metaphors (books speaking to people; being crushed by one’s belongings; crows playing a protective role). I’m still sympathetic to Ozeki’s aims, even if she doesn’t quite pull it all off here. If I pit the rather similar The Sentence and The Book of Form and Emptiness against each other, Erdrich comes out ahead.

With thanks to Canongate for the proof copy for review.

 


I’ve gotten to six books from the longlist so far and have a few more on order at the library. The others I’ve read, with ratings and links to my reviews, are:

 

Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

I’m also partway through The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton, which is enjoyable enough but, alas, suffers in comparison to Daisy Jones and the Six, whose format (a composite oral history of a fictional 1960s/70s musical act) it repeats. The addition of the race issue doesn’t feel sufficient to call it original.

 

I’ve also DNFed a few from the longlist, two of them multiple times, so I have my fingers crossed that they don’t advance!

  • The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
  • The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

 

My attitude to the rest of the longlist is…

  • The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – No plans to read.
  • Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – I might read this from the library. I’m leery of dystopias, but I’m there for a chorus of cows.
  • Careless by Kirsty Capes – No plans to read.
  • Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – I would happily read it if it’s shortlisted, but at over 500 pages I fear it’ll be too dense.
  • Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – Maybe. Sounds like pretty standard Sarah Winman-type stuff, but it could go down well with a book club.
  • This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – No plans to read.
  • Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – I was actually pretty keen to read this one, so I have it on reserve at the library. Egyptian mythology makes a change from the overdone Greeks, and the Washington, D.C. setting is a big draw. Laura’s review has tempered my expectations, but I might still give it a go.

 

My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé

 

vs.

 

My predicted shortlist:

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

 

An overall winner? Gosh, it’s too early to tell. But maybe The Sentence, Sorrow and Bliss or The Island of Missing Trees.

 

See also Laura’s shortlist predictions.

 

What have you read from the longlist so far?

Which of these books are calling to you?

January Releases, Part III: Taylor Harris, Cathy Rentzenbrink & Tanya Shadrick

Rounding off my three-part look at some of the month’s new releases with two memoirs plus a memoir-writer’s self-help guide today. (Can you tell I’m a memoir junkie?) Topics range from medical mysteries and covert racism to a reclaiming of life after a near-death experience, but these three nonfiction works by women are linked by the determination to overcome self-doubt.

 

This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris

One morning, Taylor Harris and her husband (an African American family based in Charlottesville, Virginia) found their 22-month-old son Christopher, nicknamed “Tophs,” awake but unresponsive in his crib. In the years that followed, she and his doctors looked for answers as to why his body couldn’t regulate his blood sugar levels, sometimes leading to seizures, and to why his speech and mental processing remained delayed. All their tests and theories have never amounted to a conclusive diagnosis. This was a book that repeatedly surprised me. I’d assumed it would be exclusively about the medical mystery of Tophs’s physical and intellectual disability. But Harris elegantly weaves in a lot of other themes, too: mental illness, her own physical concerns (a BRCA2 mutation), racism, faith, and advocating for her children’s health and education. (Full review at BookBrowse.)

 

Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink is a lovely human being, and I’ve always appreciated her enthusiastic support of books. I’ve read all of her work even though I’ve been disappointed with her last few releases. There are so many writing guides out there – including several on memoir-writing specifically – that the first question to ask about one is, does it offer anything new? For me, this one doesn’t. In fact, it’s more of a therapy session than a practical writing guide.

The undemanding prose slides right down, but 60 pages in (at the end of Part One, “Preparation”) I realized all we’d had thus far was enumerating and countering the hang-ups of unconfident, procrastinating would-be writers. The rest of the book does then get into the nitty-gritty of producing a first draft (“Excavation”) of a life story and editing it into a more polished form. Rentzenbrink peppers in little tricks to keep oneself at the desk, like setting a timer or micro-goals, writing a section in the form of a letter, and dredging up sensory details. Most of the mini chapters are just a couple of pages. Several end with a series of prompts. I’m notorious for skipping the application questions in self-help books, but I’d be interested to hear if other readers have actually gone through these exercises and found them helpful.

I’m so familiar with the author’s own story from her three autobiographical works that I was less than patient about encountering certain incidents again here – though I was intrigued to learn that she gave up alcohol in the recent past after realizing that she was a problem drinker. I’ve also read most of the material in her Further Reading list; all told, I didn’t feel this book offered me much, as a lay reader or a maybe-some-day memoirist. But it seems to have been enormously popular among critics and readers (its average Goodreads rating is 4.38), so clearly a lot of people have been finding Rentzenbrink’s down-to-earth approach reassuring.

With thanks to Emma Finnigan PR and Bluebird for the proof copy for review.

 

The Cure for Sleep: Memoir of a Late-Waking Life by Tanya Shadrick

From my Most Anticipated list. Shadrick hangs around the fringes of nature writing cliques on Twitter, so I expected this to have more of a nature/travel element. Instead, it bears a fairy tale ambience, of a little girl lost in the woods and craving freedom; of a sleepwalking woman deciding to live more deliberately. It opens with a near-death experience: Shadrick, new mother to a son conceived after infertility treatment, suffered a severe haemorrhage after the placenta tore an artery and was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.

From this point she returns to the beginning of her life and proceeds chronologically, pausing at joyful or traumatic moments. Her childhood feels like the key to understanding everything else: her father left when she was a baby; her mother, all too aware of being of lower class, was driven to improve herself. Shadrick wanted her mother all to herself, at the same time as she felt trapped by her. She injured herself jumping off an outhouse roof in protest at her mother’s new boyfriend, who became her stepfather. At university she reacted against her upbringing in predictable ways, failing her first year and having an abortion. Even once happily married, she kept unconsciously searching for surrogate father (older male) figures.

After the postnatal operation, she felt a need to escape – by suicide if necessary – yet forced herself to stay, make connections in her town and be present for her children. But she remained a free spirit, swimming and writing a mile-long scroll as public performance art. Her work with hospice patients, recording their memories, qualified her to edit Lynne Roper’s wild swimming diaries into a Wainwright Prize-longlisted book.

Awakening versus sleep is the figurative framework for the memoir, with a feminist insistence on freedom and self-fulfilment at the same time as being a mother. This is an unusual book – at times overwritten and too deliberately moulded into tropes as a rebuttal to randomness, even though, looking back, I can’t decipher a coherent plot to the events – that reminded me most of Free Woman by Lara Feigel and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell.

With thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.

Does one of these books appeal to you?

January 2022 Releases, Part I: Jami Attenberg and Roopa Farooki

It’s been a big month for new releases! I’m still working on a handful and will report back on two batches of three, tomorrow and Sunday; more will likely turn up in review roundups in future months. For today, I have a memoir in essays about a peripatetic writer’s life and an excerpt from my review of a junior doctor’s chronicle of the early days of the pandemic.

 

I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg

I’ve enjoyed Attenberg’s four most recent novels (reviewed here: The Middlesteins and All This Could Be Yours) so was intrigued to hear that she was trying out nonfiction. She self-describes as a “moderately successful author,” now in her early fifties – a single, independent feminist based in New Orleans after years in Manhattan and then Brooklyn. (Name-dropping of author friends: “Lauren” (Groff), “Kristen” (Arnett) and “Viola” (di Grado), with whom she stays in Italy.) Leaving places abruptly had become a habit; travelling from literary festival to holiday to writing residency was her way of counterbalancing a safe, quiet writing life at home. She tells of visiting a friend in Hong Kong and teaching fiction for two weeks in Vilnius – where she learned that, despite her Jewish heritage, Holocaust tourism is not her thing. Anxiety starts to interfere with travel, though, and she takes six months off flying. Owning a New Orleans home where she can host guests is the most rooted she’s ever been.

Along with nomadism, creativity and being a woman are key themes. Attenberg notices how she’s treated differently from male writers at literary events, and sometimes has to counter antifeminist perspectives even from women – as in a bizarre debate she ended up taking part in at a festival in Portugal. She takes risks and gets hurt, physically and emotionally. Break-ups sting, but she moves on and tries to be a better person. There are a lot of hard-hitting one-liners about the writing life and learning to be comfortable in one’s (middle-aged) body:

I believe that one must arrive at an intersection of hunger and fear to make great art.

Who was I hiding from? I was only ever going to be me. I was only ever going to have this body forever. Life was too short not to have radical acceptance of my body.

Whenever my life turns into any kind of cliché, I am furious. Not me, I want to scream. Not me, I am special and unusual. But none of us are special and unusual. Our stories are all the same. It is just how you tell them that makes them worth hearing again.

I did not know yet how books would save me over and over again. I did not know that a book was a reason to live. I did not know that being alive was a reason to live.

Late on comes her #MeToo story, which in some ways feels like the core of the book. When she was in college, a creative writing classmate assaulted her on campus while drunk. She reported it but nothing was ever done; it only led to rumours and meanness towards her, and a year later she attempted suicide. You know how people will walk into a doctor’s appointment and discuss three random things, then casually drop in a fourth that is actually their overriding concern? I felt that way about this episode: that really the assault was what Attenberg wanted to talk about, and could have devoted much more of the book to.

The chapters are more like mini essays, flitting between locations and experiences in the same way she has done, and sometimes repeating incidents. I think the intent was to mimic, and embrace, the random shape that a life takes. Each vignette is like a competently crafted magazine piece, but the whole is no more than the sum of the parts.

With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the proof copy for review.

 

Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki

Farooki is a novelist, lecturer, mum of four, and junior doctor. Her storytelling choices owe more to literary fiction than to impassive reportage. The second-person, present-tense narration drops readers right into her position. Frequent line breaks and repetition almost give the prose the rhythm of performance poetry. There is also wry humour, wordplay, slang and cursing. In February 2020, her sister Kiron had died of breast cancer. During the first 40 days of the initial UK lockdown – the book’s limited timeframe – she continues to talk to Kiron, and imagines she can hear her sister’s chiding replies. Grief opens the door for magic realism, despite the title – which comes from a Balzac quote. A hybrid work that reads as fluidly as a novel while dramatizing real events, this is sure to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a bereavement or medical memoir. (Full review coming soon at Shiny New Books.)

A great addition to my Covid chronicles repertoire!

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

Would one of these books interest you?

10 Favorite Nonfiction Novellas from My Shelves

What do I mean by a nonfiction novella? I’m not claiming a new genre like Truman Capote did for the nonfiction novel (so unless they’re talking about In Cold Blood or something very similar, yes, I can and do judge people who refer to a memoir as a “nonfiction novel”!); I’m referring literally to any works of nonfiction shorter than 200 pages. Many of my selections even come well under 100 pages.

I’m kicking off this nonfiction-focused week of Novellas in November with a rundown of 10 of my favorite short nonfiction works. Maybe you’ll find inspiration by seeing the wide range of subjects covered here: bereavement, social and racial justice, hospitality, cancer, nature, politics, poverty, food and mountaineering. I’d reviewed all but one of them on the blog, half of them as part of Novellas in November in various years.

When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt [137 pages]: In March 2015 Aidt got word that her son Carl Emil was dead. The 25-year-old jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window after taking some mushrooms. The text is a collage of fragments: memories, dreams, dictionary definitions, journal entries, and quotations. The playful disregard for chronology and the variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are a way of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin [89 pages]: A hard-hitting book composed of two essays: “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter addressed to his nephew and namesake on the 100th anniversary of emancipation; and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which first appeared in the New Yorker and tells of a crisis of faith that hit Baldwin when he was a teenager and started to question to what extent Christianity of all stripes was upholding white privilege. This feels completely relevant, and eminently quotable, nearly 60 years later.

Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil [117 pages]: A thought-provoking essay that reaches into many different topics. Part of an Indian family that has lived in Kenya and England, Basil is used to culinary abundance. However, living in Berlin increased her awareness of the suffering of the Other – hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU to be met with hostility. Yet the Sikh tradition she grew up in teaches kindness to strangers. She asks how we can all cultivate a spirit of generosity.

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman [83 pages]: Hoffman wrote this 15 years after her own experience of breast cancer to encourage anyone going through a crisis. Each chapter title begins with the word “Choose” – a reminder that, even when you can’t choose your circumstances, you can choose your response. This has been beautifully put together with blue-tinted watercolor-effect photographs and an overall yellow and blue theme (along with deckle edge pages – a personal favorite book trait). It’s a sweet little memoir with a self-help note.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold [92 pages]: Few know how much of our current philosophy of wilderness and the human impact on the world is indebted to Aldo Leopold. This was published in 1949, but so much rings true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [70 pages]: Maybe you, like me, had always assumed this was an impenetrable tome of hundreds of pages? But, as I discovered when I read it on the train to Manchester some years ago, it’s very compact. That’s not to say it’s an easy read; I’ve never been politically or economically minded, so I struggled to follow the argument at times. Mostly what I appreciated was the language. Like The Origin of Species, it has many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell [189 pages]: Orwell’s first book, published when he was 30, is an excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. He works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week and has to pawn his clothes to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. Even as he’s conveying the harsh reality of exhaustion and indignity, Orwell takes a Dickensian delight in people and their eccentricities.

Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles [85 pages]: This lovely pamphlet of food-themed essays arose from a blog Powles kept while in Shanghai on a one-year scholarship to learn Mandarin. From one winter to another, she explores the city’s culinary offerings and muses on the ways in which food is bound up with her memories of people and places. This is about how food can help you be at home. I loved how she used the senses – not just taste, but also smell and sight – to recreate important places in her life.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd [108 pages]: This is something of a lost nature classic. Composed during the later years of World War II but only published in 1977, it’s Shepherd’s tribute to her beloved Cairngorms, a mountain region of Scotland. But it’s not a travel or nature book in the way you might usually think of those genres. It’s a subtle, meditative, even mystical look at the forces of nature, which are majestic but also menacing. Shepherd dwells on the senses, the mountain flora and fauna, and the special quality of time and existence (what we’d today call mindfulness) achieved in a place of natural splendor and solitude.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit [143 pages]: Solnit believes in the power of purposeful individuals working towards social justice, even in the face of dispiriting evidence (e.g. the largest protests the world had seen didn’t stop the Iraq War). Instead of perfectionism, she advises flexibility and resilience; things could be even worse had we not acted. Her strong and stirring writing is a reminder that, though injustice is always with us, so is everyday heroism.


Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Any suitably short nonfiction on your shelves?

Soul Food: Rereading Anne Lamott

I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.

 

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)

Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.

The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.

Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.

Some favorite lines:

“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”

“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”

“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”

“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”

My original rating (c. 2005):

My rating now:

 

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)

Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.

I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”

My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.

Some favorite lines:

(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”

“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”

My original rating (c. 2005):

My rating now:

 

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)

This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.

My original rating (2015):

My rating now (for the newer material only):

 

Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty

 

Done any rereading lately?

What books have been balm for the soul for you?

September Recommendations: Boyer, Doughty, Englehardt, Jamie, Patchett

For this second half of the year I chose just 15 of the new releases I was most excited about. Limiting myself in that way has been helpful for focusing the mind: I’ve already read six of my most anticipated books, I’m currently reading another, and I have several more awaiting me. Had I chosen 30 or more titles, I would likely be feeling overwhelmed by now, but as it is I have a good chance of actually getting to all these books before the end of the year. These five September releases, while very different – their topics range from cancer and dead bodies to archaeological digs and family inheritance – all lived up to my expectations:

 

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer

(Coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux [USA] on the 17th and Allen Lane [UK] on October 3rd)

In 2014, Boyer, then a 41-year-old poet and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute (and a single mother) was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The book’s subtitle gives you clues to the sort of practical and emotional territory that’s covered here. Although she survived this highly aggressive cancer, she was not unscathed: the chemotherapy she had is so toxic it leads to lasting nerve damage and a brain fog that hasn’t completely lifted.

All the more impressive, then, that Boyer has been able to put together this ferociously intellectual response to American cancer culture. Her frame of reference ranges from ancient Greece – Aelius Aristides, who lived in a temple, hoping the gods would reveal the cure to his wasting illness via dreams, becomes an offbeat hero for her – to recent breast cancer vloggers. She is scathing on vapid pink-ribbon cheerleading that doesn’t substantially improve breast cancer patients’ lives, and on profit-making healthcare schemes that inevitably discriminate against poor women of color and send people home from the hospital within a day or two of a double mastectomy. Through her own experience, she reflects on the pressure women are under to be brave, to be optimistic, to go to work as normal, and to look as beautiful as ever when they are in excruciating pain and beyond exhaustion.

Impossible to avoid comparisons to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, but this book has a personal power I don’t remember finding in Sontag’s more detached, academic-level work. Boyer sees herself as one in a long lineage of women writing about their cancer – from Fanny Burney to Audre Lorde – and probes the limits of language when describing pain. I was reminded of another terrific, adjacent book from this year, Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, especially where Boyer describes her imagined 10-part pain scale (Gleeson has a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index).

I could quote excellent passages all day, but here are a few that stood out to me:

“People with breast cancer are supposed to be ourselves as we were before, but also better and stronger and at the same time heart-wrenchingly worse. We are supposed to keep our unhappiness to ourselves but donate our courage to everyone.”

“The moral failure of breast cancer is not in the people who die: it is in the world that makes them sick, bankrupts them for a cure that also makes them sick, then blames them for their own deaths.”

“If suffering is like a poem, I want mine to be lurid, righteous, and goth.”

My thanks to FSG for the proof copy for review.

 

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty

(Coming from W.W. Norton [USA] on the 10th and W&N [UK] on the 19th)

This is the third book by the millennial mortician, and I’ve taken perverse glee in reading them all. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes explains cremation and combats misconceptions about death; From Here to Eternity surveys death rituals from around the world. This new book seems to be aimed at (morbid) children, but for me it was more like one of those New Scientist books (Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?) or Why Do Men Have Nipples?

Some of the questions are more serious than others, but with her usual punning wit and pop culture references Doughty gives biologically sound answers to them all. For instance, she explains what might happen to a corpse in space, why the hair and fingernails of a cadaver appear to keep growing, and why the quantity of ashes from a cremation is about the same no matter the dead person’s girth (all the fat burns away; what would make your ashes weigh more is being taller and thus having longer bones). I was most interested in the chapter on why conjoined twins generally die at roughly the same time.

Doughty also discusses laws relating to the dead, such as “abuse of corpse” regulations and whether or not deaths at a property have to be reported to potential buyers (it depends on what state or country you live in); and what happens in countries that are literally running out of space for burials. In highly population-dense places like Singapore, but also in countries such as Germany, one is considered to ‘rent’ grave space, which is then recycled after 15 years and the previous set of remains cremated. Or graves might get stacked vertically.

This is good fun, and features lots of cartoonishly gruesome black-and-white illustrations by Dianné Ruz. If you’ve got a particularly curious niece or nephew who might appreciate a dark sense of humor, this would make a good Christmas gift for one who is an older child or young teen.

My thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.

 

Bloomland by John Englehardt

(Coming from Dzanc Books [USA only] on the 10th)

“you wonder if the scariest thing about all this is not that life can’t return to normal, but that it already has”

Especially after Gilroy and El Paso, I wasn’t sure I’d have the heart to pick up Bloomland, a novel about a mass shooting at (fictional) Ozarka University, Arkansas. But I’m very glad I did. Crucially, Englehardt’s debut doesn’t a) make easy assignments of guilt, b) resort to lurid scenes for shock value, or c) employ the cut-and-dried language of cause and effect. It’s a subtle and finely crafted piece of literary fiction. The second-person narration is an effective means of drawing the reader into the action, and inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, an Ozarka student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter.

Both Rose and Eli lost their mothers when they were 11 years old. Six years before starting a poultry science course at Ozarka, Rose was caught up in a tornado that killed her grandmother and fractured her skull. The fact that her upbringing was even more traumatic than Eli’s is, I think, meant to discredit the lazy argument that dysfunctional families produce killers. In his early days at university we see Eli befriending a drug dealer named Gordon, whose hunting rifle he soups up to use in the shooting at the campus library in finals week. Englehardt also tests out another couple of predictors of violence: cruelty towards animals (au contraire, Eli can’t stand more than one day of debeaking chickens at a poultry factory and even takes one home as a pet) and violent, video-game-fueled fantasies (the story he writes for creative writing class is average for a teenage male so doesn’t raise any alarm bells).

Gradually we learn that there is an “I” behind this triple-stranded narrative: Dr. Steven Bressinger, an Ozarka creative writing professor. Although Rose, Eddie and Eli are all fully realized characters, we are also left to wonder how this Bressinger is able to access their memories and emotions. To what extent can he really put himself into their situations? And how much of the rest is made up? But then, that’s what the novelist does anyway: imagine what it’s like to be inside a character’s experience, especially when they’ve made unimaginable decisions.

So this novel within a novel thoroughly convinced me, especially as it moves into the future to examine how the campus and the wider community address issues of guilt and vengeance. Its timeliness is obvious, and Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, even when it’s about the homogeneity of the American suburb: e.g., “You start driving down MLK, past the mass grave of dollar stores, under the even clouds converging like one stoic slab of ice.”

My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

(Coming from Sort Of Books [UK] on the 19th and Penguin Books [USA] on the 24th)

I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too.

The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quinhagak, Alaska, a village that’s about the farthest you can go before crossing the Bering Sea into Russia, by her fascination with the whaling artifacts found along the UK’s east coast. Here she helped out on a summer archaeological dig and learned about the language and culture of the Yup’ik people. Alarmingly, the ground here should have been frozen most of the way to the surface, forcing the crew to wear thermals; instead, the ice was a half-meter down, and Jamie found that she never needed her cold-weather gear.

On Westray, Orkney (hey, I’ve been there!), there was also evidence of environmental degradation in the form of rapid erosion. This Neolithic site, comparable to the better-known Skara Brae, leads Jamie to think about deep time and whether we’re actually much better off than people in the Bronze Age were. Prehistory fits the zeitgeist, as seen in two entries from the recent Wainwright Prize shortlist: Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis.

A cancer biopsy coincides with a dream memory of being bitten by a Tibetan dog, prompting Jamie to get out her notebook from a trip to China/Tibet some 30 years ago. Xiahe was technically in China but ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and so the best they could manage at that time since Tibet was closed to foreigners. There’s an amazing amount of detail in this essay given how much time has passed, but her photos as well as her notebook must have helped with the reconstruction.

The depth and engagement of the long essays are admirable, yet I often connected more with the few-page pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Jamie has made the interesting choice of delivering a lot of the memoir fragments in the second person. My favorite piece of all is “Elders,” which in just five pages charts her father’s decline and death and marks her own passage into unknown territory: grown children and no parents; what might her life look like now?

There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition:

What are you doing here anyway, in the woods? … You wanted to think about all the horror. The everyday news … No, not to think about it exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing … You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.

My thanks to Sort Of Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

(Coming from Bloomsbury [UK] and Harper [USA] on the 24th)

Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. Their mother left when Danny was little, so his older sister played a maternal role, too. And when their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel (or Cinderella and her little brother): cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeeks’ cigarette empire.

It’s interesting to see Patchett take on a male perspective in this novel; she does it utterly convincingly. I also loved the medical threads running through: Maeve is diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and Danny spends many years in medical training even though his only ambition is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a property developer. There was a stretch in the middle of the book – something like 46% to 58% – when I was really bored with Danny’s dithering (‘but I don’t want to be a doctor … but I don’t want to marry Celeste’), and the chronology is unnecessarily complicated by flashbacks, though this is, I think, meant to convey Danny’s desultory composition of his memoirs.

In the end I didn’t like this quite as much as Commonwealth, but it’s a memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. As the decades pass you see how what happened to Maeve and Danny has been turned into myth: a story they repeat to themselves about how they were usurped, until this narrative has more power than the reality. Readers, meanwhile, are invited to question the people and places we base our security on, and to imagine what it would mean to forgive and forget and start living in a different way.

Patchett is always so good on the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head. The Goldfinch comes to mind as a readalike – not least because of the significance of a piece of art: the cover depicts a painting made of Maeve when she was 10 – as well as Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.

I read an electronic proof copy via Edelweiss.

 

Have you read any September releases that you would recommend? Which of these tempt you?

The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize: Shadow Panel and Wish List

On Tuesday the longlist for the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. For the third year in a row I’m running a shadow panel, and it’s composed of the same four wonderful book bloggers who joined me last year: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall.

This year we’re going to do things slightly differently: we plan to split up the longlist, taking two to three titles each, so that between us we will have read them all and can announce our own preferred shortlist before the official shortlist is announced in March. At that point we’ll catch up by (re)reading the six shortlisted books, each reviewing the ones we haven’t already. Essentially, I’m adding an extra stage of shadow panel judging, simply because I can. I hope it will be fun – and also less onerous, in that we should get a leg-up on the shortlist and not have to read all six books in March‒April, which has proved to be a challenge in the past.

My Wellcome Prize hopefuls are all the fiction or nonfiction titles I’ve read on a medical theme that were published in the UK in calendar year 2018. I have put asterisks beside the 12 books in this post that I predict for the longlist. (The combination of wishful thinking and likelihood means that these are not exclusively my personal favorites.)

 

Below is a list of the books I’ve already featured on the blog in some way, with links to my coverage and a few-word summary of their relevance.

 

Nonfiction

Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman: Female body woes

*Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body: Essays on organs

*All that Remains by Sue Black: Forensic anthropology

Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler: Living with advanced cancer

Heal Me by Julia Buckley: Tackling chronic pain

*The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Adjusting to life with MS

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty: Funerary rites around the world

This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A genetic disease in the family

Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich: Questioning the wellness culture

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes: Pondering breast cancer

Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis: Instances of bodily change

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman: Healing from an eating disorder

Nine Pints by Rose George: The story of blood

Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway: Ageing and death

*Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar: Heart disease and treatments

Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Chronic Lyme disease

Human Errors by Nathan Lents: Flawed bodies; evolutionary adaptations

Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Breast cancer; flying lessons

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee: Memoir of F2M transformation

*Face to Face by Jim McCaul: Tales of facial surgery

*Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell: A firsthand account of early Alzheimer’s

*That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker: Mental illness from the inside

*The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson: Nursing as a vocation

 

Fiction

Little by Edward Carey: Anatomical models in wax (thanks to Clare for the reminder!)

Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: Non-epileptic seizures

*The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason: Neurology, surgery during WWI

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry: Medicine in 1840s Edinburgh

 

 

Other eligible books that I have read but not happened to mention on the blog:

 

In Shock by Rana Awdish: The doctor became the patient when Awdish, seven months pregnant, was rushed into emergency surgery with excruciating pain due to severe hemorrhaging into the space around her liver, later explained by a ruptured tumor. Having experienced brusque, cursory treatment, even from colleagues at her Detroit-area hospital, she was convinced that doctors needed to do better. This memoir is a gripping story of her own medical journey and a fervent plea for compassion from medical professionals. 

 

Doctor by Andrew Bomback: Part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, this is a wide-ranging look at what it’s like to be a doctor. Bomback is a kidney specialist; his wife is also a doctor, and his father, fast approaching retirement, is the kind of old-fashioned, reassuring pediatrician who knows everything. Even the author’s young daughter likes playing with a stethoscope and deciding what’s wrong with her dolls. In a sense, then, Bomback uses fragments of family memoir to compare the past, present and likely future of medicine. 

 

A Moment of Grace by Patrick Dillon [skimmed]: A touching short memoir of the last year of his wife Nicola Thorold’s life, in which she battled acute myeloid leukemia. Dillon doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties, but is also able to summon up some gratitude. 

 

Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare by Nick Duerden: British journalist Nick Duerden had severe post-viral fatigue after a run-in with possible avian flu in 2009 and was falsely diagnosed with ME / CFS. He spent a year wholeheartedly investigating alternative therapies, including yoga, massage, mindfulness and meditation, visualization, talk therapy and more. He never comes across as bitter or sorry for himself. Instead, he considered fatigue a fact of his new life and asked what he could do about it. So this ends up being quite a pleasant amble through the options, some of them more bizarre than others. 

 

*Sight by Jessie Greengrass [skimmed]: I wanted to enjoy this, but ended up frustrated. As a set of themes (losing a parent, choosing motherhood, the ways in which medical science has learned to look into human bodies and minds), it’s appealing; as a novel, it’s off-putting. Had this been presented as a set of autobiographical essays, perhaps I would have loved it. But instead it’s in the coy autofiction mold where you know the author has pulled some observations straight from life, gussied up others, and then, in this case, thrown in a bunch of irrelevant medical material dredged up during research at the Wellcome Library. 

 

*Brainstorm: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan: Epilepsy affects 600,000 people in the UK and 50 million worldwide, so it’s an important condition to know about. It is fascinating to see the range of behaviors seizures can be associated with. The guesswork is in determining precisely what is going wrong in the brain, and where, as well as how medicines or surgery could address the fault. “There are still far more unknowns than knowns where the brain is concerned,” O’Sullivan writes; “The brain has a mind of its own,” she wryly adds later on. (O’Sullivan won the Prize in 2016 for It’s All in Your Head.) 

 

 

I’m also currently reading and enjoying two witty medical books, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris, and Chicken Unga Fever by Phil Whitaker, his collected New Statesman columns on being a GP.

 


Four additional books I have not read but think might have a chance of making the longlist:

Primate Change: How the World We Made Is Remaking Us by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

The Beautiful Cure: Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Defences by Daniel M. Davis

Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist by Edward M. Hallowell

*She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer

 


Look out for the announcement of the longlist on Tuesday afternoon! I’ll report back, perhaps on Wednesday, with some reactions and the shadow panel’s reviewing strategy.

 

Have you read, or are you interested in, any of these books?

Can you think of other 2018 releases that might be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize?

Two Memoirs of Women’s Freedom: Lara Feigel and Rebecca Loncraine

I have read some truly phenomenal memoirs this year, most of them by women. These two have rather different starting points – frustration with the constraints of marriage and motherhood, and breast cancer treatment – but I’ve paired them because both are journeys of self-discovery in which the author commits to determining how to live a free and true life.

 

Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel

It started with a spate of weddings one summer. Lara Feigel, a literature lecturer at King’s College London, found herself strangely irked at all this capitulation to marital convention, even though she herself had married in her twenties and had a young son. What did her mild outrage signify? At the same time, she was rereading the works of Doris Lessing, whom she found simultaneously admirable and vexing: Lessing lived by her ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways but not in others, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; and ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free.

Throughout, Feigel holds up her own experiences of marriage and motherhood in parallel to Lessing’s. She maintains a delicate balance between biographical and autobiographical information and brings in references to other writers – everyone from Rachel Cusk to D.H. Lawrence – to explore various opinions on maternal ambivalence and sexual fulfillment. I could relate to the bookworm’s impulse to turn to literature for comfort and direction – “the most enduring novelists … illuminate our lives,” and “we live differently as a result of reading them,” Feigel insists. Lessing seemed to her the perfect “writer to discover in your thirties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”

And yet a familiarity with or fondness of the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this book. I’ve only ever read The Golden Notebook (1962) and Alfred and Emily (2008), a fictionalized biography of Lessing’s parents, both during my mid-twenties. The former I almost certainly read before I could fully appreciate it. It’s about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well. Feigel often looks for clues in Lessing’s heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels, which I’d like to read, and also travels to California to meet one of Lessing’s lovers and to Zimbabwe to see the farm where Lessing grew up.

Like Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, this is a richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. I would also recommend it to readers of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Feigel’s is a particularly brave and forthright book. I feel proud of her in an oddly personal way: during my years as a library assistant at King’s, I saw her chair countless literature and life writing events. She seemed impossibly young for a professor type, and wore her navy blue shift dress and string of pearls like it was her grown-up’s uniform. I can tell that the years since, including the difficult experiences she recounts here, have both softened and toughened her, sandpapering away what she calls her “diffident angularity” and replacing it with womanly wisdom.

My rating:


Free Woman was published by Bloomsbury UK on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Skybound: A Journey in Flight by Rebecca Loncraine

In 2016 it was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; in 2017 it was The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. And now Skybound. Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing a death from cancer with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky.

She was a freelance writer based on her parents’ farm in the Black Mountains of Wales, an area that’s familiar to me from trips to Hay-on-Wye and from my reading of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill. The history and geography of the region, as revealed from the air, weave through the book, as do childhood memories and recollections of chemotherapy. Loncraine discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: the red kites in Wales, and later vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. She learned from a British Airways pilot that 500,000 people are airborne at any one moment! We take for granted what should still be acknowledged as a miraculous feat.

“There’s no road in the sky. Each individual glider pilot finds a new pathless way through the air, a unique scribble. We locate a bit of ridge lift, here; fly out to a thermal, there; we wind and manoeuvre over the curving land. We never take the same route twice, so flight offers me a new perspective each time I fly.”

“Influenced by the ancient seam of human thought that associates the sky with the imagination, weaving and circling in the sky begins to feel like sailing through the realm of the subconscious itself.”

This hobby-turned-obsession was not without its inconveniences and dangers. Even when it’s warm at ground level it’s frigid at 13,000 feet, so you have to bundle up. Meanwhile, the strength of the sun means you keep guzzling water and have to wear either a urine-collecting device or adult diapers. The earliest attempts at unpowered flight were generally fatal, and when Loncraine went to New Zealand for a bonus season of flying to replace the Welsh winter, one of her fellow flyers died in a crash. Her instructor told her she’d become fearless, even reckless. But when she met one of the pioneers of gliding, then in his nineties, in New Zealand he spoke an aphorism that perfectly captures the role flying played for Loncraine: “The antidote to fear is fascination.”

There’s a brief afterword by Loncraine’s mother, Trisha. Her daughter had virtually finished this manuscript when the cancer returned, and underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016. This is a simply wonderful book; what a shame that we won’t get another.

My rating:


Skybound was published by Picador on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.

Two Memoirs: Border Control and Breast Cancer

The Line Becomes a River

Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years. Agents tracked illegals using the same skills with which hunters stalk their prey. Once captured, the would-be immigrants were detained, processed and deported. Days in the field were full of smuggled drugs, cached belongings and corpses of those who’d tried to cross in inhospitable conditions. Even when Cantú was transferred to a desk job, he couldn’t escape news of Mexican drug cartels and ritual mutilation of traitors’ corpses. Dreams of wolves and of his teeth breaking and falling out revealed that this was a more stressful career than he ever realized. Cantú worried that he was becoming inured to the violence he encountered daily – was he using his position “as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping”?

Impressionistic rather than journalistic, the book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that uses no speech marks, so macho banter with colleagues blends into introspection, memories and stories. Cantú inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from and discusses other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. He was often called upon to translate for those in custody. I felt that even if the overall policy was problematic, it was good to have someone compassionate in his job.

The final third of the book represents a change of gears: Cantú left law enforcement to be a Fulbright scholar and then embarked on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. During those years of study he worked as a barista at a food court and every day he chatted and shared food with another worker, José Martínez from Oaxaca. When José went back to Mexico to visit his dying mother and settle her estate, he was refused reentry to the United States for not having the proper papers. Cantú drew on his contacts in Border Patrol to find out when José’s hearing would be, helped his wife to gather character witness letters, and took José’s sons to visit him in the detention center during his continuance and civil trial. There’s a particularly wrenching recreated monologue from José himself.

I love these endpapers.

It is as if, for the first time, Cantú could see the human scale of U.S. immigration policy, what his mother, a former national park ranger, had described as “an institution with little regard for people.” No longer could he be blasé about the way things are. It was also, he recognized, an attempt to atone for the heartless deportations he had conducted as a Border agent. “All these years,” he said to his mother, “it’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now, I said, it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.” As he quotes from Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder, “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” That’s just what this remarkable memoir does. In giving faces to an abstract struggle, it passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.

My rating:


The Line Becomes a River was published in the UK by Bodley Head on March 1st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions

It was hard to resist such a great title, especially with my penchant for cancer memoirs. In nine chapters that are almost like linked essays, Kate Figes reflects on the changes that a diagnosis of triple-negative, metastasized breast cancer has wrought in her life. However, like Vesna Goldsworthy’s Chernobyl Strawberries, the book sets the cancer experience within a wider life story of trauma and displacement. In the first essay, as Figes, a freelance nonfiction writer, approached age 60, she delighted in Zeus, their miniature wire-haired dachshund puppy, but also resented the sense of obligation. Cancer quickly changed her perspective.

I appreciated the lack of bitterness; the book’s focus is generally on resilience and on the liberation of knowing that little is now expected of her: “when there is no need to rush just to be able to get through everything I had to achieve each day, there is a glorious sense of freedom, of empty space.” Two chapters go in-depth into Figes’s “arsenal” of cancer-fighting tools, everything from hyperbaric oxygen treatments to yoga. She gave up sugar and swears by cannabis oil, filtered water, supplements and fresh juices. Her embrace of complementary medicine and discussion of her limitations – it takes her an hour and a half to get dressed and have breakfast – will probably mean the most to others with a chronic illness.

As to the other essays, “Tennis” is an ode to a favorite hobby she had to give up; “Mediation” is about training as a family mediator. The psychological understanding she gained through this and through researching her books helped her work through childhood hurt over her parents’ divorce. “The Beach Hut” remembers recent ‘escapes’ to the seaside and contrasts them with her Jewish mother’s* escape from 1930s Germany. “Home,” my favorite essay, is about clearing out her mother’s flat and the memories and comfort a home retains, even decades later. “That’s the power I will leave behind too, the essence of having been really known. It will pervade every piece of crockery I have eaten off, … every chair I have sat on.”

Unfortunately, Figes frequently uses clichéd language – “Cancer can feel isolating” and “battle is the right word” – and seems to give credence to the damaging idea that unresolved emotional trauma caused her cancer. What with the typos and the slight repetition across the essays, this feels like a book that was put together in a hurry. A bit more time and editing could have made it more cohesive and fresh. But perhaps Figes does not have that time. Fellow cancer patients may well appreciate her dispatches from what she calls “Planet Cancer,” but it’s not a book that will particularly stand out for me in this crowded genre.

*Her mother was Eva Figes, an author in her own right.

My rating:


On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions was published by Virago on February 28th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

My Favorite Nonfiction Reads of 2015

Without further ado, I present to you my 15 favorite non-fiction books read in 2015. I’m a memoir junkie so many of these fit under that broad heading, but I’ve dipped into other areas too. I give two favorites for each category, then count down my top 7 memoirs read this year.

Note: Only four of these were actually published in 2015; for the rest I’ve given the publication year. Many of them I’ve already previewed through the year, so – like I did yesterday for fiction – I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read this book. (Links given to full reviews.)

Foodie Lit

homemade lifeA Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (2009): Wizenberg reflects on the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her food blog, and meeting her husband through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with memories.

comfort meComfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl (2001): Reichl traces the rise of American foodie culture in the 1970s–80s (Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck) through her time as a food critic for the Los Angeles Times, also weaving in personal history – from a Berkeley co-op with her first husband to a home in the California hills with her second after affairs and a sticky divorce. Throughout she describes meals in mouth-watering detail, like this Thai dish: “The hot-pink soup was dotted with lacy green leaves of cilantro, like little bursts of breeze behind the heat. … I took another spoonful of soup and tasted citrus, as if lemons had once gone gliding through and left their ghosts behind.”


Nature Books

meadowlandMeadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (2014): Lewis-Stempel is a proper third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. Magical moments and lovely prose, as in “The dew, trapped in the webs of countless money spiders, has skeined the entire field in tiny silken pocket squares, gnomes’ handkerchiefs dropped in the sward.”

landmarksLandmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.


Theology Books

amazing graceAmazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (1998): In few-page essays, Norris gives theological words and phrases a rich, jargon-free backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy. This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all.

my brightMy Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (2013): Seven years into a cancer journey, Wiman, a poet, gives an intimate picture of faith and doubt as he has lived with them in the shadow of death. Nearly every page has a passage that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human and in interaction with other people and the divine.


General Nonfiction

penelope fitzgeraldPenelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (2013): Although Penelope Fitzgerald always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her writing wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. This is a thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvellously detailed biography from Lee.

being mortalBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014): A surgeon’s essential guide to decision-making about end-of-life care, but also a more philosophical treatment of the question of what makes life worth living: When should we extend life, and when should we concentrate more on the quality of our remaining days than their quantity? The title condition applies to all, so this is a book everyone should read.


Memoirs

  1. year my motherThe Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: Wry and heartfelt, this is a wonderful memoir about motherhood in all its variations and complexities; the magic realism (Cohen’s dead mother keeps showing up) is an added delight. I recommend this no matter what sort of relationship, past or present, you have with your mother, especially if you’re also a fan of Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas.
  1. The Art of Memoirart of memoir by Mary Karr: There is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Karr has been teaching (and writing) memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work, and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity.
  1. l'engleA Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1971): In this account of a summer spent at her family’s Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides. If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation.
  1. do no harmDo No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (2014): “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” – luckily for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. In my favorite passages, Marsh reflects on the mind-blowing fact that the few pounds of tissue stored in our heads could be the site of our consciousness, our creativity, our personhood – everything we traditionally count as the soul.
  1. i hate to leaveI Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman (2013): Norman has quickly become one of my favorite writers. You wouldn’t think these disparate autobiographical essays would fit together as a whole, given that they range in subject from Inuit folktales and birdwatching to a murder–suicide committed in Norman’s Washington, D.C. home and a girlfriend’s death in a plane crash, but somehow they do; after all, “A whole world of impudent detours, unbridled perplexities, degrading sorrow, and exacting joys can befall a person in a single season, not to mention a lifetime.”
  1. portraitPortrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg (2010): Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. He achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.

And my overall favorite nonfiction book of the year:

light of the world1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander: In short vignettes, beginning afresh with every chapter, Alexander conjures up the life she lived with – and after the sudden death of – her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean chef and painter. This book is the most wonderful love letter you could imagine, and no less beautiful for its bittersweet nature.


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