It’s nonfiction week of Novellas in November, which for me usually means short memoirs (today) and nature books (coming up on Wednesday). However, as my list of 10 nonfiction favorites from last year indicates, there’s no shortage of subjects covered in nonfiction works of under 200 pages; whether you’re interested in bereavement, food, hospitality, illness, mountaineering, nature, politics, poverty or social justice, you’ll find something that suits. This week is a great excuse to combine challenges with Nonfiction November, too.
We hope some of you will join in with our buddy read for the week, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). At a mere 85 pages, it’s a quick read. I’ve been enjoying learning about her family history and how meeting her teacher was the solution to her desperate need to communicate.
My first three short nonfiction reads of the month are all in my wheelhouse of women’s life writing, with each one taking on a slightly different fragmentary form.
Generations: A Memoir by Lucille Clifton (1976)
After her father’s death, Clifton, an award-winning poet, felt compelled to delve into her African American family’s history. Echoing biblical genealogies, she recites her lineage in a rhythmic way and delivers family anecdotes that had passed into legend. First came Caroline, “Mammy Ca’line”: born in Africa in 1822 and brought to America as a child slave, she walked north from New Orleans to Virginia at age eight, became a midwife, and died free. Mammy Ca’line’s sayings lived on through Clifton’s father, her grandson: she “would tell us that we was Sayle people and we didn’t have to obey nobody. You a Sayle, she would say. You from Dahomey women.” Then came Caroline’s daughter, Lucy Sale, famously the first Black woman hanged in Virginia – for shooting her white lover. And so on until we get to Clifton herself, who grew up near Buffalo, New York and attended Howard University.
The chapter epigraphs from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” call into question how much of an individual’s identity is determined by their family circumstances. While I enjoyed the sideways look at slavery and appreciated the poetic take on oral history, I thought more detail and less repetition would have produced greater intimacy.
Reissued by NYRB Classics tomorrow, November 9th, with a new introduction by Tracy K. Smith. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Home Life, Book Four by Alice Thomas Ellis (1989)
For four years, Ellis wrote a weekly “Home Life” column for the Spectator. Her informal pieces remind me of Caitlin Moran’s 2000s writing for the Times – what today might form the kernel of a mums’ blog. In short, we have a harried mother of five trying to get writing done while maintaining a household – but given she has homes in London and Wales AND a housekeeper, and that her biggest problems include buying new carpet and being stuck in traffic, it’s hard to work up much sympathy. These days we’d say, Check your privilege.
The sardonic complaining rubbed me the wrong way, especially when the subject was not finding anything she wanted to read even though she’d just shipped four boxes of extraneous books off to her country house, or using noxious sprays to get rid of one harmless fly, or a buildup of rubbish bags because they’d been “tidying.” These essays feel of their time for the glib attitude and complacent consumerism. It’s rather a shame they served as my introduction to Ellis, but I think I’d still give her fiction a try. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)
In the space of a year, Levy separated from her husband and her mother fell ill with the cancer that would kill her. Living with her daughters in a less-than-desirable London flat, she longed for a room of her own. Her octogenarian neighbor, Celia, proffered her garden shed as a writing studio, and that plus an electric bike conferred the intellectual and physical freedom she needed to reinvent her life. That is the bare bones of this sparse volume, the middle one in an autobiographical trilogy, onto which Levy grafts the tissue of experience: conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her.
It’s hard to convey just what makes this brilliant. The scenes are everyday – set at her apartment complex, during her teaching work or on a train; the dialogue might be overheard. Yet each moment feels perfectly chosen to reveal her self, or the emotional truth of a situation, or the latent sexism of modern life. “All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world,” she writes, and it’s that quality of attention that sets this apart. I’ve had mixed success with Levy’s fiction (though I loved Hot Milk), but this was flawless from first line to last. I can only hope the rest of the memoir lives up to it. (New purchase)
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Any short nonfiction on your reading pile?
This Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction.
I’m also counting this as the first entry in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I’ll review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself. I have another medical-themed one lined up for this Friday as a second ‘Being the Expert’ entry.
I never set out to read several memoirs of women’s experience of postpartum depression this year; it sort of happened by accident. I started with the graphic memoir and then chanced upon a recent pair of traditional memoirs published in the UK – in fact, I initially pitched them as a dual review to the TLS, but they’d already secured a reviewer for one of the books.
Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho
I was delighted to see this prediction of mine make the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Coincidentally, I was already halfway through the book on my Kindle (via NetGalley) at that point, but its nomination gave me the push to finish in a timely manner. Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son, Cato. She and her husband James had gone back to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration for him at her in-laws’ home in New Jersey. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced there were cameras 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 an emergency room, followed by a mental health ward.
Cho alternates between her time on the New Bridge ward – writing in a notebook, trying to act normal whenever James visited, expressing milk from painfully swollen breasts, and interacting with her fellow patients with all their quirks – and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown. Her Kentucky childhood was marked by her mathematician father’s detachment and the sense that she and her brother were together “in the trenches,” pitted against the world. In her twenties she worked in a New York City corporate law firm and got caught up in an abusive relationship with a man she moved to Hong Kong to be with. All along she weaves in her family’s history and Korean sayings and legends that explain their values.
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 – a terrifying time when she questioned her sanity and whether she was cut out for motherhood. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow,” she writes. She captures both extremes, of suffering and joy, in this vivid account.
What Have I Done? An honest memoir about surviving postnatal mental illness by Laura Dockrill
Dockrill is a British children’s author. Her style reminded me of others of her contemporaries who do a good line in light, witty, warts-and-all, here’s-what-it’s-really-like-to-be-a-woman books: Dolly Alderton, Caitlin Moran and the like. From a labor that quickly deviated from her birth plan due to an emergency Caesarean to the usual post-baby blues to full-blown psychosis, Dockrill recreates her experience with fluid dialogue and italicized passages of her paranoid imaginings. Her memoir resembles Cho’s in its broad strokes but also in certain particulars, like imagining surveillance cameras and hearing a voice in her head telling her she is a bad mum. I skimmed this one because of a library deadline and because of an overload on similar content. I had a greater affinity for Cho’s literary style compared to the more between-girlfriends, self-help bent of this memoir. With the glossary and resources at the end, though, I’d say this one would be more useful for someone going through the same thing.
Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression by Teresa Wong (2019)
Memoir as letter and as graphic novel. Wong narrates the traumatic birth of her first child and her subsequent postpartum depression in black-and-white sketches that manage to feel breezy and fun despite the heavy subject matter. “I felt lost. I had no maternal instincts and no clue how I was supposed to take care of a baby,” she writes to Scarlet. “Your first two months in the world were the hardest two months of my life.”
For Wong, a combination of antidepressants, therapy, a postnatal doula, an exercise class, her mother’s help, and her husband’s constant support got her through, and she knows she’s lucky to have had a fairly mild case and to have gotten assistance early on. I loved the “Not for the Faint of Heart” anatomical spreads and the reflections on her mother’s tough early years after arriving in Canada from China.
The drawing and storytelling style is similar to that of Sarah Laing and Debbie Tung. The writing is more striking than the art, though, so I hope that with future work the author will challenge herself to use more color and more advanced designs (from her Instagram page it looks like she is heading that way).
My thanks to publicist Beth Parker for the free e-copy for review.
What I learned:
All three authors emphasize that motherhood does not always come naturally; “You might not instantly love your baby,” as Dockrill puts it. There might be a feeling of detachment – from the baby and/or from one’s new body. They all note that postpartum depression is common and that new mothers should not be ashamed of seeking help from medical professionals, baby nurses, family members and any other sources of support.
These two passages were representative for me:
Cho: “I don’t feel a rush of love or an overwhelming weight of responsibility, emotions that I’d been expecting. Instead, I felt curious, like I’d just been introduced to a stranger. He was a creature, an idea, not even human yet, just a being, a life. … I’d thought I would reclaim my body after birth, but instead, it was now a tool, something to sustain life.”
Dockrill: “If childbirth and motherhood are the most natural, universal, common things in the world, the things that women have been doing since the beginning of time, then why does nobody tell us that there’s a good chance that you might not feel like yourself after you have a baby? That you might even lose your head? That you might not ever come back?”
Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish, one of my current bedside books, also deals with complicated pregnancy emotions and the chaotic early months of motherhood.
If you read just one, though… Make it Inferno by Catherine Cho.
Can you see yourself reading any of these books?
This was one of the catchphrases of long-time judge Randy Jackson on the reality TV show American Idol, which was my guilty pleasure viewing for a decade or more. The three recent books for which I provide short-ish reviews below have nothing much in common apart from the fact that I requested or accepted them from publishers and ended up feeling disappointed but like I still owed a review. You can consider them all .
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver
(Duckworth, March 22nd)
We’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, so friends are more important than ever. That’s the impetus for Kate Leaver’s jaunty, somewhat insubstantial book about modern friendship. She observes teen girls on the Tube and reflects on how we as primates still engage in social grooming – though language has replaced much of this more primitive bond-forming behavior. We experience a spike in our number of friends through adolescence and early adulthood, but friendships can fall by the wayside during our thirties as we enter long-term relationships and turn our attention to children and other responsibilities. Leaver argues that female friendships can amplify women’s voices and encourage us to embrace imperfection. She also surveys the bromance, mostly in its TV and film manifestations. There are plenty of pop culture references in the book; while I enjoy a Scrubs or Parks and Recreation scene or quotation as much as the next fan, the reliance on pop culture made the book feel lightweight.
Perhaps the most useful chapter was the one on online friendships (hi, book blogger friends!). We so often hear that these can’t replace IRL friendships, but Leaver sticks up for social media: it allows us to meet like-minded people, and is good for introverted and private people. Anything is better than isolation. The biggest problem I had with the book was the tone: Leaver is going for a Caitlin Moran vibe, and peppers in hip references to Taylor Swift, Lindsay Lohan and the like. But then she sometimes tries for more of a Mary Beard approach, yet doesn’t trust herself to competently talk about science, so renders it in matey, anti-intellectual language like “Robin [Dunbar, of Oxford University] did some fancy maths” (um, I think you mean “Dr. Dunbar”!) or “Let me hit you with a bit of research.”
“on some days, somewhere in our souls, we still count the number of social media connections as a measure of who we are”
“When you successfully recruit a new person into your friendship circle, you’re essentially confirming that you are a likable human being, worthy of someone’s time and emotional investment.”
You might choose to read instead: Kory Floyd’s The Loneliness Cure; Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty; Anna Quindlen’s essay “Girlfriends” from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
Writer’s Luck: A Memoir: 1976–1991 by David Lodge
(Harvill Secker, January 11th)
David Lodge has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade. His first memoir, Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935–1975 (see my Nudge review), is a good standalone read, even for non-fans, for its insight into the social changes of post-war Britain. However, this volume makes the mistake of covering much less ground, in much more detail – thanks to better record-keeping at the peak of his career – and the result is really rather tedious. The book opens with the publication of How Far Can You Go? and carries through to the reception of Paradise News, with a warning that he cannot promise a third volume; he is now 83. Conferences, lecture tours, and travels are described in exhaustive detail. There’s also a slightly bitter edge to Lodge’s attempts to figure out why ventures flopped or novels got negative reviews (Small World, though Booker-shortlisted, was better received in America), though he concludes that his career was characterized by more good luck than bad.
I liked the account of meeting Muriel Spark in Italy, and valued the behind-the-scenes look at the contentious task of judging the 1989 Booker Prize, which went to Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Days. Especially enjoyable is a passage about getting hooked on saunas via trips to Finland and to Center Parcs, a chain of all-inclusive holiday activity camps in England. Oh how I laughed at his description of nude sauna-going in midlife (whether I was supposed to or not, I’m not sure): “The difference in pleasure between swimming wearing a costume of any kind and the sensation of swimming without one, the water coursing unimpeded round your loins as you move through it, cannot be exaggerated, and I first discovered it in Center Parcs.” I also cringed at the Lodges placing “our Down’s son” Christopher in a residential care home – I do hope thinking about disability has moved on since the mid-1980s.
Ultimately, I’m not sure Lodge has had an interesting enough life to warrant a several-volume project. He’s an almost reassuringly dull chap; “The fact is that I am constitutionally monogamous,” he admits at one point. Although it was fun for me to see the genesis of novels like Paradise News, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for reading any more about why Lodge thinks his star faded starting in the 1990s. However, I’ll keep this on the shelf to go back to for some context when I finally get around to rereading Small World and Nice Work.
“there has been a downside to the Prize Culture which the Booker engendered. It has warped the evaluation of new fiction by measuring success as if it were a competitive sport.”
You might choose to read instead: Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to Be Born or John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books – overall the better autobiography of a working-class, bookish lad.
The Parentations by Kate Mayfield
(Point Blank [Oneworld], March 29th)
Sisters Constance and Verity Fitzgerald have been alive for over 200 years. A green pool in Iceland, first discovered in 1783, gives them “extended mortality” so long as they take the occasional two-week nap and only swallow two drops of the liquid at a time. In London in 2015, they eat a hearty stew by candlelight and wait for their boy to come. Then they try the churchyard: dead or alive, they are desperate to have him back. Meanwhile, Clovis Fowler is concealing extra phials of the elixir from her husband, their son and the maid. What’s going on here? We go back to Iceland in 1783 to see how the magic pool was first found, and then hop across to 1783 London to meet the sisters as children.
I read the first 67 pages, continued skimming to page 260, and then gave up. At well past the one-third point, the novel still hasn’t established basic connections. A book of nearly 500 pages has to hook the reader in sooner and more securely, not lull them with wordiness (case in point: on the first page of the first chapter, the adjective “macilent” – I looked it up and it means thin or lean, either of which would have been a far preferable word to use).
I could see faint echoes here of so many great books – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, A Discovery of Witches, Slade House, The Essex Serpent; works by Hannah Kent and Diane Setterfield, maybe even Matt Haig? I liked Mayfield’s memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter and had hoped for improvement with this debut novel. As it is, The Parentations has an interesting premise and lineage, but doesn’t deliver.
“His rage foments a decision. He will either take his place in the mounds of the dead, or he will find a good reason to stay alive.”
“Francis and Averil Lawless have impressed upon their daughters the concept of the consequences of a single moment, and there is no better teacher than the river’s majesty and its demand for respect for its waters, which can easily bring violence and ruin as well as wealth and peace.”
You might choose to read instead: Any of the literary fantasy novels listed above.