All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett & I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m catching up with reviews of two February releases that I spent the whole of last month submerged in. These are early entries on my Best of 2023 list: A lovely memoir about grief and gardening, caring for an ill child and a dying parent; and a riveting true crime-inspired novel, set on a boarding school campus, that rages at injustice and violence against women.
All My Wild Mothers: Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett
Early in February, I attended the online book launch via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere. With conversation, readings and song, it was the ideal introduction to the themes of this debut memoir by a poet. The book is composed of dozens of brief autobiographical, present-tense essays, each titled after a wildflower with traditional healing properties. The chapters are headed by a black-and-white woodcut of each plant (by Bennett’s husband, Adam Clarke) and a précis of its medicinal uses, as well as where it is found. Again and again, these descriptions site the flora on edgelands or “disturbed ground” – the perfect metaphorical tie-in to Bennett’s tumultuous life and the comfort that creating an apothecary garden brought.
Bennett is the youngest of six children. When she was expecting her son – much longed for after multiple pregnancy losses – news came that her eldest sister had died in a canoeing accident. At age two, her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; managing his condition has imposed a heavy emotional burden. And years later, she was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother as she was dying of mesothelioma. The memoir’s format – which arose in part because it was written over the course of 10 years, during stolen moments – realistically presents bereavement and caring as ongoing, cyclical challenges rather than one-time events.
There are no simple solutions offered here, nothing so pat as that ‘gardening heals all hurts’, but Bennett writes into the broken places and finds joy in what comes to life spontaneously in nature or in her ramshackle yard on a social housing estate in Cumbria. She recalls a horse chestnut tree that looked over her outside the window of her childhood home; she and her son take impish delight in guerrilla gardening and sometimes disastrous cooking projects with foraged fruit. Some of my favourite individual vignettes were “Elder,” about the magic and medicine of making elderberry syrup from the few village trees that escape the chainsaw; “Dandelion,” about her trio of older sisters, who were Greenham Common protestors and always tried to protect her as well as nature; “Herb Robert,” about her sister-in-law’s funeral; and especially “Honeysuckle,” about a local agricultural show where the officious organizers make them feel like interlopers yet her son wins first place for their feral, fecund garden.
Many side topics twine into the narrative as well: a difficult relationship with a controlling mother; a family history that takes in boarding schools, cults, road trips, risk taking and mental health issues; the economic disparity that leads to one set of rules for the rich and another for those on benefits. But the core of the book is a tender mother–son relationship. “I can give him this: a seed, with all its defiant hope against the dark; and the memory that once, we grew a garden out of rock, and waste, and all things broken, and it thrived.” Sitting somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature essays, it’s a beautiful read for any fan of women’s life writing, especially if you share the interests in grief or gardening. I hope we’ll see it recognized on the Barbellion and Wainwright Prize shortlists alike.
Readalikes I have reviewed: A Still Life by Josie George, The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick
With thanks to Victoria Bennett and Two Roads for the free copy for review.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m a big fan of Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and have her other two books lined up to read, so I was excited to hear about this new work and put it on my Most Anticipated list for the year. My interest was redoubled by Laura’s review, which likens it to a cross between Prep and My Dark Vanessa – irresistible.
Bodie Kane grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family in Indiana, and has beneficent Mormon neighbours to thank for the tuition money that allowed her to attend Granby, an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, in the early to mid-1990s. She was an angry and awkward high school student, yet her memories of Granby and the friendships she made there are still an emotional mainstay more than two decades later. In 2018, she is a successful film professor with a podcast about Hollywood starlets. Although she is separated from Jerome, her artist husband, he lives next door and they co-parent their two children.
After an invitation comes from Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting, Bodie trades Los Angeles for a bitter New England winter. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge her obsession with the 1995 murder of her former Granby roommate, Thalia Keith, who was found dead in the swimming pool one March morning after a play performance. Bodie has never been comfortable with the flawed case against the Black athletics coach, Omar Evans, who has been imprisoned ever since. When one of her students chooses to make Thalia’s murder the subject of a podcast, it’s all the justification Bodie needs to dive deep into her pet hypothesis: Thalia was sleeping with the music director, Denny Bloch, and he was involved in her death in some way. Her blinkered view threatens to exclude a key explanation. Still, the informal sleuthing she and her students do is enough to warrant a follow-up hearing in 2022, but they – and Omar – are up against a broken system.
Makkai has taken her cues from the true crime genre and constructed a convincing mesh of evidence and theories. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, from Dorian, the bully who once humiliated Bodie with sexual slurs, to Fran, the faculty kid/gay best friend who now lives and works on campus herself and continues to be Bodie’s trusty backup. The combinations of background + teenage behaviour + 40-something lives all feel authentic in their randomness (when I saw that Makkai sourced 24 names from indie bookstore supporters, I realized afresh just how real, as opposed to ‘made-up’, these characters feel).
At times I wondered if there was too much detail on the case and the former classmates; I might even have streamlined the novel by doing away with the 2022 section altogether, though it ends up being crucial to the plot. But Makkai has so carefully crafted these pen portraits, and so intimately involved us in Bodie’s psyche, that it’s easy to become invested in the story. What’s more, the novel introduces a seam of rage about violence towards women – so predictably excused and allowed to recur by a justice system weighted against victims –
What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl.
let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team. Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his d*ck in the girl’s face. … It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.
– yet also finds nuance in the situation when Bodie’s ex-husband is subjected to exaggerated #MeToo accusations. It’s timely, daring, intelligent, enthralling storytelling. Susan (review here) and I are both hoping to see this make the Women’s Prize longlist next week.
Readalikes I have reviewed: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
With thanks to Fleet for the proof copy for review.
What are the best 2023 books you’ve read so far?
Six Degrees of Separation: From Ruth Ozeki to Ruth Padel
This month we begin with The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It happens to be my least favourite of her books that I’ve read so far, but I was pleased to see her work recognised nonetheless. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 One of the peripheral characters in Ozeki’s novel is an Eastern European philosopher who goes by “The Bottleman.” I had to wonder if he was based on avant-garde Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Back in 2010, when I was working at a university library in London and had access to nearly any book I could think of – and was still committed to trying to read the sorts of books I thought I should enjoy rather than what I actually did – I skimmed a couple of Žižek’s works, including First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), which arose from 9/11 and the global financial crisis and questions whether we can ever stop history repeating itself without undermining capitalism.
#2 In searching my archives for farces I’ve read, I came across one I took notes on but never wrote up back in 2013: Japanese by Spring by Ishmael Reed (1993), an academic comedy set at “Jack London College” in Oakland, California. The novel satirizes almost every ideology prevalent in the 1960s–80s: multiculturalism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, feminism, affirmative action and various literary critical methods. Reed sets up exaggerated and polarized groups and opinions. (You know it’s not to be taken entirely seriously when you see character names like Chappie Puttbutt, President Stool and Professor Poop, short for Poopovich.) The college is sold off to the Japanese and Ishmael Reed himself becomes a character. There are some amusing lines but I ended up concluding that Reed wasn’t for me. If you’ve enjoyed work by Paul Beatty and Percival Everett, he might be up your street.
#3 “Call me Ishmael” – even if, like me, you have never gotten through Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851), you probably know that famous opening line. I took an entire course on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville as an undergraduate and still didn’t manage to read the whole thing! Even my professor acknowledged that Melville could have done with a really good editor to rein in his ideas and cut out some of his digressions.
#4 A favourite that I can recommend instead is Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (2011). It’s just the kind of random, wide-ranging nonfiction I love: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical musing on human culture and our impact on the environment. In 1992 a pallet of “Friendly Floatees” bath toys fell off a container ship in a storm in the North Pacific. Over the next two decades those thousands of plastic animals made their way around the world, informing oceanographic theory and delighting children. Hohn’s obsessive quest for the origin of the bath toys and the details of their high seas journey takes on the momentousness of his literary antecedent. He visits a Chinese factory and sees plastics being made; he volunteers on a beach-cleaning mission in Alaska. (I’d not seen the Ozeki cover that appears in Kate’s post, but how pleasing to note that it also has a rubber duck on it!)
#5 Alongside Moby-Duck on my “uncategorizable” Goodreads shelf is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978), one of my Books of Summer from 2019. A nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir, it’s about a trip to Nepal in 1973, with Matthiessen joining a zoologist to study Himalayan blue sheep – and hoping to spot the elusive snow leopard. He had recently lost his partner to cancer, and relied on his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance and transience.
#6 Ruth Padel is one of my favourite contemporary poets and a fixture at the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year. She has a collection named The Soho Leopard (2004), whose title sequence is about urban foxes. The natural world and her travels are always a major element of her books. From one Ruth to another, then, by way of philosophy, farce, whaling, rubber ducks and mountain adventuring.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is a wildcard: use the book you finished with this month (or, if you haven’t done an August chain, the last book you’ve read).
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
The Poet by Louisa Reid (Blog Tour Review)
The Poet lured me with the prospect of a novel in verse (Girl, Woman, Other and Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile are two others I would recommend) and the theme of a female poet caught up in a destructive relationship with her former professor. Emma Eliot published a poetry collection at age 21 before embarking on an abandoned PhD on Charlotte Mew. Tom Abbot, a charming Oxford don in his early forties, left his wife and daughters for her, but Emma has found that the housewife existence doesn’t suit her and longs to return to academia. Tom relies on Emma to boost his ego, play stepmum and help him with his publications, but scorns her working-class upbringing and can’t conceive of her having her own life and desires.
Tom’s students and ex-wife commiserate with Emma over his arrogance, but in the end it’s up to her whether she’ll break free. She tells her story of betrayal, gaslighting and the search for revenge in free verse that flows effortlessly. Sometimes her words are addressed to Tom:
Miles of misunderstanding waver
Anything would be better than the stink
– and other times to the reader.
Give me the confidence of a mediocre white man
who thinks he has the right to
a woman’s work –
and womb –
and everything else.
if the bed seems too big
then perhaps that is because I have shrunk
to fit the space,
or am lost in the wasteland of what was.
There are a few poetry in-jokes like that one, with Emma quoting Emily Dickinson and Tom likening her early work to Sylvia Plath’s. Usually this feels like reading fiction rather than poetry, though the occasional passage where alliteration and internal rhymes bloom remind you that Emma is meant to be an accomplished poet.
I wanted to sit in a book-lined room
wombed in words.
I didn’t see the tomb that waited
for the woman
who underrated herself.
That said, I didn’t particularly rate this qua poetry, and the storytelling style wasn’t really enough to make a rather thin story stand out. Still, I’d recommend it to poetry-phobes, as well as to readers of The Wife by Meg Wolitzer and especially Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan (who, like Reid, wrote YA fiction before producing an adult novel in verse).
My thanks to Doubleday and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Poet. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
The #1954Club: Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
A quick follow-up to Friday’s post with one more read from 1954, plus a skim. The one is a series of comic portraits set on a women’s college campus, and the other is the story of a preacher’s son in 1930s Harlem. (Both: University library; )
Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
I have a real soft spot for novels set on college campuses. Any time I’ve looked through lists of options, Jarrell’s has been there. Still, it took the 1954 Club for me to finally pick up a copy. For about the first half, I was fully engaged with this academic comedy even though it doesn’t have a plot as such. The stage is Benton women’s college; the cast includes various eccentric professors and other staff, from President Robbins on down. Gertrude Johnson, a visiting writer, is writing a novel about Benton. The problem for her – and for us as readers – is two-fold: the characters are almost too eccentric to be believed, and nothing happens here.
The narrator, a poetry professor at Benton, knew Gertrude socially back in New York City. His descriptions of his fellow faculty are often hilarious. For instance, here’s his picture of Flo Whittaker:
Mostly she wore, in the daytime in the winter, a tweed skirt, a sweater-set, and a necklace. The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before
The Whittakers’ house is so full of kitschy knick-knacks that “Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed body would not have been ill at ease.” And then there’s the Robbinses’ ill-behaved pair of Afghan hounds, and Dr. Rosenbaum the music professor, whose German accent is rendered over-the-top.
Funny as parts of the novel can be, the humour can feel dated and sometimes relies on niche cultural references. The very first line, for example: “Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe”. However, elsewhere Jarrell mocks the pretentiousness of modern art and of the Benton set, who also seem woke avant la lettre:
Most of the people of Benton would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art; they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren’t prejudiced towards moon men; and they were so liberal and selfless, politically
Amusing pen portraits and witty lines made this pleasant to spend time with, but not a read that will stick with me.
As usual for any reading challenge, I bit off more than I could chew and started a fourth book but couldn’t get through it in time and, in all honesty, wasn’t finding it compelling. I’ll have to give it a better try on another occasion.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I’ve enjoyed Baldwin’s work before (The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room), but didn’t make it much past page 30 of this novel about John Grimes, a preacher’s son in Harlem, before starting to skim. The central section contains long flashbacks to the backstory of three secondary characters, whereas I was more interested in John’s story (semi-autobiographical for Baldwin, apparently). Mostly I thought of how the content and narrative style must have influenced the following generations of African American writers, including Toni Morrison and Catherine Adel West – both of whom I was reading at the same time.
Some of My Most Anticipated Releases of 2022
Ninety-nine 2022 releases have made it onto my Goodreads shelves so far. I’ve read about 10 already and will preview some of them tomorrow.
This year we can expect new fiction from Julian Barnes, Carol Birch, Jessie Burton, Jennifer Egan, Karen Joy Fowler, David Guterson, Sheila Heti, John Irving (perhaps? at last), Liza Klaussman, Benjamin Myers, Julie Otsuka, Alex Preston and Anne Tyler; a debut novel from Emilie Pine; second memoirs from Amy Liptrot and Wendy Mitchell; another wide-ranging cultural history/self-help book from Susan Cain; another medical history from Lindsey Fitzharris; a biography of the late Jan Morris; and much more. (Already I feel swamped, and this in a year when I’ve said I want to prioritize backlist reads! Ah well, it is always thus.)
I’ve limited myself here to the 20 upcoming releases I’m most excited about. The low figure is a bit of a cheat: with a few exceptions, I’ve not included books I have / have been promised. I’ll be scurrying around requesting copies of most of the others soon. The following are due out between January and August and are in (UK) release date order, within sections by genre. (U.S. details given too/instead if USA-only. Quotes are extracted from publisher blurbs on Goodreads.)
U.S. covers – included where different – rule!
N.B. Fiction is winning this year!
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara [Jan. 11, Picador / Doubleday] You’ll see this on just about every list; her fans are legion after the wonder that was A Little Life. Another doorstopper, but this time with the epic reach to justify the length: sections are set in an alternative 1893, 1993, and 2093 – “joined in an enthralling and ingenious symphony, as recurring notes and themes deepen and enrich one another.” [Proof copy]
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu [Jan. 18, Bloomsbury / William Morrow] Amazing author name! Similar to the Yanagihara what with the century-hopping and future scenario, a feature common in 2020s literature – a throwback to Cloud Atlas? I’m also reminded of the premise of Under the Blue, one of my favourites from last year. “Once unleashed, the Arctic Plague will reshape life on Earth for generations to come.”
Heartstopper, Volume 5 by Alice Oseman [Feb. ?, Hodder Children’s] I devoured the first four volumes of this teen comic last year. In 2020, Oseman tweeted that the fifth and final installment was slated for February 2022, but I don’t have any more information than that. Nick will be getting ready to go off to university, so I guess we’ll see how he leaves things with Charlie and whether their relationship will survive a separation. (No cover art yet.)
How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman [March 29, Scribner] I enjoyed her earlier story collection, Almost Famous Women. “Bergman portrays women who wrestle with problematic inheritances: a modern glass house on a treacherous California cliff, a water-starved ranch, an abandoned plantation on a river near Charleston … provocative prose asks what are we leaving behind for our ancestors … what price will they pay for our mistakes?”
A Violent Woman by Ayana Mathis [April 7, Hutchinson] Her Oprah-approved 2013 debut, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, got a rare 5-star review from me. About “an estranged mother and her daughter. Dutchess lives in Bonaparte, Alabama, a once thriving black town now in its death throes. Lena lives in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Her involvement with the radical separatist group STEP leads to transcendence and tragedy.” (No cover art yet.)
there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler [April 28, Fleet] I so wanted her 2019 debut novel, Stubborn Archivist, to win the Young Writer of the Year Award. I love the cover and Hamlet-sourced title, and I’m here for novels of female friendship. “In January 2016, Melissa [South London native] and Catarina [born to well-known political family in Brazil] meet for the first time, and as political turmoil unfolds … their friendship takes flight.”
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel [April 28, Picador / April 5, Knopf] This is the other title you’ll find on everyone else’s list. That’s because The Glass Hotel, even more so than Station Eleven, was amazing. Another history-to-future-hopper: “a novel of art, time, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon three hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.” [Edelweiss download]
Search by Michelle Huneven [April 28, Penguin] A late addition to my list thanks to the Kirkus review. Sounds like one for readers of Katherine Heiny! “Dana Potowski is a restaurant critic and food writer … asked to join [her California Unitarian Universalist] church search committee for a new minister. Under pressure to find her next book idea, she agrees, and resolves to secretly pen a memoir, with recipes, about the experience.”
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso [April 28, Picador / Feb. 8, Hogarth] The debut novel from an author by whom I’ve read four nonfiction works. “For Ruthie, the frozen town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, is all she has ever known. Once home to the country’s oldest and most illustrious families[,] … it is an unforgiving place awash with secrets. … Ruthie slowly learns how the town’s prim facade conceals a deeper, darker history…”
True Biz by Sara Nović [May 5, Little, Brown / April 5, Random House] Her 2015 Girl at War is one of my most-admired debuts of all time, and who can resist a campus novel?! “The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf.”
You Have a Friend in 10a: Stories by Maggie Shipstead [May 19, Transworld / May 17, Knopf] Shipstead’s Booker-shortlisted doorstopper, Great Circle, ironically, never took off for me; I’m hoping her short-form storytelling will work out better. “Diving into eclectic and vivid settings, from an Olympic village to a deathbed in Paris to a Pacific atoll, … Shipstead traverses ordinary and unusual realities with cunning, compassion, and wit.”
Horse by Geraldine Brooks [June 2, Little, Brown / June 14, Viking] You guessed it, another tripartite 1800s–1900s–2000s narrative! With themes of slavery, art and general African American history. I’m not big on horses, at least not these days, but Brooks’s March and Year of Wonders are among my recent favourites. “Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred, Lexington, who became America’s greatest stud sire.”
Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens [June 23, Picador / June 21, Scribner] I’ve read her two previous autofiction-y memoirs and loved Mrs Gaskell & Me. The title, cover and Victorian setting of her debut novel beckon. “In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frederic Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost.”
A Brief History of Living Forever by Jaroslav Kalfar [Aug. 4, Sceptre / Little, Brown] His Spaceman of Bohemia (2017) was terrific. “When Adela discovers she has a terminal illness, her thoughts turn to Tereza, the American-raised daughter she gave up at birth. … In NYC, Tereza is … the star researcher for two suspicious biotech moguls hellbent on developing a ‘god pill’ to extend human life indefinitely. … Narrated from the beyond by Adela.”
The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick [Jan. 20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson] Nature memoir / self-help. “On return from near-death, Shadrick vows to stop sleepwalking through life. … Around the care of young children, she starts to play with the shape and scale of her days: to stray from the path, get lost in the woods, make bargains with strangers … she moves beyond her respectable roles as worker, wife and mother in a small town.” [Review copy]
The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke [March 1, Riverhead] O’Rourke wrote one of the best bereavement memoirs ever. This ties in with my medical interests. “O’Rourke delivers a revelatory investigation into this elusive category of ‘invisible’ illness that encompasses autoimmune diseases, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, and now long COVID, synthesizing the personal and the universal.”
In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom [April 7, Granta / March 8, Random House] The true story of how Bloom accompanied her husband Brian, who had Alzheimer’s, to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. I’ve read quite a lot around assisted dying. “Written in Bloom’s captivating, insightful voice and with her trademark wit and candor, In Love is an unforgettable portrait of a beautiful marriage, and a boundary-defying love.”
Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return by Rebecca Mead [April 21, Grove Press UK / Feb. 8, Knopf] I enjoyed Mead’s bibliomemoir on Middlemarch. The Anglo-American theme is perfect for me: “drawing on literature and art, recent and ancient history, and the experience of encounters with individuals, environments, and landscapes in New York City and in England, Mead artfully explores themes of identity, nationality, and inheritance.”
Lost & Found: A Memoir by Kathryn Schulz [April 28, Picador / Jan. 20, Random House] I loved her 2010 book Being Wrong, and bereavement memoirs are my jam. “Eighteen months before Kathryn Schulz’s father died, she met the woman she would marry. In Lost & Found, she weaves the story of those relationships into a brilliant exploration of the role that loss and discovery play in all of our lives … an enduring account of love in all its many forms.”
Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble by Carolyn Oliver [Aug. 19, Univ. of Utah Press] Carolyn used to blog at Rosemary and Reading Glasses. The poems she’s shared on social media are beautiful, and I’m proud of her for winning the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. “Inside this debut collection, girlhood’s dangers echo, transmuted, in the poet’s fears for her son. A body … is humbled by chronic illness. Stumbling toward joy across time and space, these poems hum with fear and desire, bewildering loss, and love’s lush possibilities.”
Themes arising: crossing three centuries; H & I titles, the word “brief”; moons and stars on covers. Mostly female authors (only two men here).
Do check out these other lists for more ideas!
Plus you can seek out all the usual lists (e.g. on Lit Hub and virtually every other book or newspaper site) … if you want to be overwhelmed!
What catches your eye here?
What other 2022 titles do I need to know about?
Short Stories in September, Part II: Tove Jansson, Brandon Taylor, Eley Williams
Each September I make a special effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to languish on my shelves and TBR unread. After my first four reviewed last week, I have another three wonderfully different collections, ranging from bittersweet children’s fantasy in translation to offbeat, wordplay-filled love notes via linked stories suffused with desire and desperation.
Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962; 1963)
[Trans. from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]
I only discovered the Moomins in my late twenties, but soon fell in love with the quirky charm of Jansson’s characters and their often melancholy musings. Her stories feel like they can be read on multiple levels, with younger readers delighting in the bizarre creations and older ones sensing the pensiveness behind their quests. There are magical events here: Moomintroll discovers a dragon small enough to be kept in a jar; laughter is enough to bring a fearful child back from literal invisibility. But what struck me more was the lessons learned by neurotic creatures. In “The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters,” the title character fixates on her belongings—
“we are so very small and insignificant, and so are our tea cakes and carpets and all those things, you know, and still they’re important, but always they’re threatened by mercilessness…”
—but when a gale and a tornado come and sweep it all away, she experiences relief and joy:
“the strange thing was that she suddenly felt quite safe. It was a very strange feeling, and she found it indescribably nice. But what was there to worry about? The disaster had come at last.”
My other favourite was “The Hemulen who loved Silence.” After years as a fairground ticket-taker, he can’t wait to retire and get away from the crowds and the noise, but once he’s obtained his precious solitude he realizes he needs others after all. The final story, “The Fir Tree,” is a lovely Christmas one in which the Moomins, awoken midway through their winter hibernation, get caught up in seasonal stress and experience the holiday for the first time. (Public library)
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (2021)
Real Life was one of my five favourite novels of 2020, and we are in parallel fictional territory here. Lionel, the protagonist in four of the 11 stories, is similar to Wallace insomuch as both are gay African Americans at a Midwestern university who become involved with a (straight?) white guy. The main difference is that Lionel has just been released from hospital after a suicide attempt. A mathematician (rather than a biochemist like Wallace), he finds numbers soothingly precise in comparison to the muddle of his thoughts and emotions.
In the opening story, “Potluck,” he meets Charles, a dancer who’s dating Sophie, and the three of them shuffle into a kind of awkward love triangle where, as in Real Life, sex and violence are uncomfortably intertwined. It’s a recurring question in the stories, even those focused around other characters: how does tenderness relate to desire? In the throes of lust, is there room for a gentler love? The troubled teens of the title story are “always in the thick of violence. It moves through them like the Holy Ghost might.” Milton, soon to be sent to boot camp, thinks he’d like to “pry open the world, bone it, remove the ugly hardness of it all.”
Elsewhere, young adults face a cancer diagnosis (“Mass” and “What Made Them Made You”); a babysitter is alarmed by her charge’s feral tendencies (“Little Beast”); and same-sex couples renegotiate their relationships (Simon and Hartjes in “As Though That Were Love” and Sigrid and Marta in “Anne of Cleves,” one of my favourites). While the longer Lionel/Charles/Sophie stories, “Potluck” and “Proctoring,” are probably the best and a few others didn’t make much of an impression, the whole book has an icy angst that resonates. Taylor is a confident orchestrator of scenes and conversations, and the slight detachment of the prose only magnifies his characters’ longing for vulnerability (Marta says to Sigrid before they have sex for the first time: “I’m afraid I’ll mess it up. I’m afraid you’ll see me.” To which Sigrid replies, “I see you. You’re wonderful.”). (New purchase, Forum Books)
A bonus story: “Oh, Youth” was published in Kink (2021), an anthology edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon. I requested this from NetGalley just so I could read the stories by Carmen Maria Machado and Brandon Taylor. All of Taylor’s work feels of a piece, such that his various characters might be rubbing shoulders at a party – which is appropriate because the centrepiece of Real Life is an excruciating dinner party, Filthy Animals opens at a potluck, and “Oh, Youth” is set at a dinner party.
Grisha is here with Enid and Victor, his latest summer couple. He’s been a boytoy for hire since his architecture professor, Nate, surprised him by inviting him into his open marriage with Brigid. “His life at the time was a series of minor discomforts that accumulated like grit in a socket until rotation was no longer possible.” The liaisons are a way to fund a more luxurious lifestyle and keep himself in cigarettes.
While Real Life brought to mind Virginia Woolf, Taylor’s stories recall E.M. Forster or Thomas Mann. In other words, he’s the real deal: a blazing talent, here to stay.
Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams (2017)
After enjoying her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, this time last year, I was pleased to find Williams’s first book in a charity shop last year. Her stories are brief (generally under 10 pages) and 15 of the 17 are first-person narratives, often voiced by a heartbroken character looking for the words to describe their pain or woo back a departed lover. A love of etymology is patent and, as in Ali Smith’s work, the prose is enlivened by the wordplay.
The settings range from an art gallery to a beach where a whale has washed up, and the speakers tend to have peculiar careers like an ortolan chef or a trainer of landmine-detecting rats. My favourite was probably “Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet,” whose narrator is coached through online dating by a doctor.
I found a number of the stories too similar and thin, and it’s a shame that the hedgehog featured on the cover of the U.S. edition has to embody human carelessness in “Spines,” which is otherwise one of the standouts. But the enthusiasm and liveliness of the language were enough to win me over. (Secondhand purchase from the British Red Cross shop, Hay-on-Wye – how fun, then, to find the line “Did you know Timbuktu is twinned with Hay-on-Wye?”)
I’ll have one more set of short story reviews coming up before the end of the month, with a few other collections then spilling into October for R.I.P.
20 Books of Summer, #18–19: The Other’s Gold and Black Dogs
Today’s entries in my colour-themed summer reading are a novel about a quartet of college friends and the mistakes that mar their lives and a novella about the enduring impact of war set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames (2019)
Make new friends but keep the old,
One is silver and the other’s gold.
Do you know that little tune? We would sing it as a round at summer camp. It provides a clever title for this story of four college roommates whose lives are marked by the threat of sexual violence and ambivalent feelings about motherhood. Alice, Ji Sun, Lainey and Margaret first meet as freshmen in 2002 when they’re assigned to the same suite (with a window seat! how envious am I?) at Quincy-Hawthorn College.
They live together for the whole four years – a highly unusual situation – and see each other through crises at college and in the years to come as they find partners and meander into motherhood. Iraq War protests and the Occupy movement form a turbulent background, but the friends’ overriding concerns are more personal. One girl was molested by her brother as a child and has kept secret her act of revenge; one has a crush on a professor until she learns he has sexual harassment charges being filed against him by multiple female students. Infertility later provokes jealousy between the young women, and mental health issues come to the fore.
As in Expectation by Anna Hope, the book starts to be all about babies at a certain point. That’s not a problem if you’re prepared for and interested in this theme, but I love campus novels so much that my engagement waned as the characters left university behind. Also, the characters seemed too artificially manufactured to inject diversity (Ji Sun is a wealthy Korean; adopted Lainey is of mixed Latina heritage, and bisexual; Margaret has Native American blood) and embody certain experiences. And, unfortunately, any #MeToo-themed read encountered in the wake of My Dark Vanessa is going to pale by comparison.
Part One held my interest, but after that I skimmed to the end. Ideally, I would have chosen replacements and not included skims like this and Green Mansions, but it’s not the first summer that I’ve had to count DNFs and skimmed books – my time and attention are always being diverted by paid review work, review copies and library books with imminent deadlines. I’ve read lots of fiction about groups of female friends this summer, partly by accident and partly by design, and will likely do a feature on it in an upcoming month. For now, I’d recommend Lara Feigel’s The Group instead of this.
With thanks to Pushkin Press (ONE imprint) for the free e-copy for review.
Black Dogs by Ian McEwan (1992)
When I read the blurb, I worried I’d read this before and forgotten it: all it mentions is a young couple setting off on honeymoon and having an encounter with evil. Isn’t that the plot of The Comfort of Strangers? I thought. In fact, this only happens to have the vacation detail in common, and has a very different setup and theme overall.
Jeremy lost his parents in a car accident (my least favourite fictional trope – far too convenient a way of setting a character off on their own!) when he was eight years old, and is self-aware enough to realize that he has been seeking for parental figures ever after. He becomes deeply immersed in the story of his wife’s parents, Bernard and June, even embarking on writing a memoir based on what June, from her nursing home bed, tells him of their early life (Part One).
After June’s death, Jeremy takes Bernard to Berlin (Part Two) to soak up the atmosphere just after the Wall comes down, but the elderly man is kicked by a skinhead. The other key thing that happens on this trip is that he refutes June’s account of their honeymoon. At June’s old house in France (Part Three), Jeremy feels her presence and seems to hear the couple’s voices. Only in Part Four do we learn what happened on their 1946 honeymoon trip to France: an encounter with literal black dogs that also has a metaphorical dimension, bringing back the horrors of World War II.
I think the novel is also meant to contrast Communist ideals – Bernard and June were members of the Party in their youth – with how Communism has played out in history. It was shortlisted for the Booker, which made me feel that I must be missing something. A fairly interesting read, most similar in his oeuvre (at least of the 15 I’ve read so far) to The Child in Time. (Secondhand purchase from a now-defunct Newbury charity shop)
Coming up next: The latest book by John Green – it’s due back at the library on the 31st so I’ll aim to review it before then, possibly with a rainbow-covered novel as a bonus read.
Novellas in November: 10 Favorite Classic Novellas
For this final week of Novellas in November, we’re focusing on classic literature. The more obscure the better, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe a few of the favorites I feature below will be new to you? (The two not pictured were read from the library.)
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin [150 pages]: David, a penniless American, came to Paris to find himself. His second year there he meets Giovanni, an Italian barman. They fall in love and move in together. There’s a problem, though: David has a fiancée. We know from the first pages that David has fled to the south of France and that Giovanni faces the guillotine in the morning, but throughout Baldwin maintains the tension as we wait to hear why he has been sentenced to death. Deeply sad, but also powerful and brave.
The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates [137 pages]: “Perfick” reading for an afternoon sitting or two; The Novel Cure even prescribes it as a tonic for cynicism. Just like tax inspector Cedric Charlton, you’ll find yourself drawn into the orbit of junk dealer Pop Larkin, Ma, and their six children at their country home in Kent – indomitably cheery hedonists, the lot of them. Ma and Pop are more calculating than they let on, but you can’t help but love them. Plus Bates writes so evocatively about the British countryside in late spring.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote [91 pages]: Whether you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn film or not, this is delightful. Holly Golightly has remade herself as a New York City good-time girl, but her upstairs neighbor discovers her humble origins. This was from my pre-reviewing days, so I have no more detail to add. But whenever I think of its manic cocktail party scenes, I think of a holiday do from my final year of college: packed like sardines, everyone talking over each other, and my professor couldn’t stop shaking my hand.
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr [108 pages]: Summer 1920: Tom Birkin, a WWI veteran, arrives in North Yorkshire to uncover a local church’s medieval wall painting of the Judgment Day. With nothing awaiting him back in London, he gives himself over to the rhythms of working, eating and sleeping. Also embarked on a quest into the past is Charles Moon, searching for the grave of their patroness’ 14th-century ancestor in the churchyard. Moon, too, has a war history he’d rather forget. A Hardyesque, tragicomic romance.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer [144 pages]: Aged 31 and already on her fourth husband, the narrator, known only as Mrs. Armitage, has an indeterminate number of children. A breakdown at Harrods is the sign that Mrs. A. isn’t coping, and she starts therapy. Meanwhile, her filmmaker husband is having a glass tower built as a countryside getaway, allowing her to contemplate an escape from motherhood. A razor-sharp period piece composed largely of dialogue, it gives a sense of a woman overwhelmed by responsibility.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov [177 pages]: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Timofey Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth pulled out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”. There are shades of Lucky Jim here – I laughed out loud at some of Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls.
No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West [156 pages]: Sackville-West’s last novel, published a year before her death, was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. Fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist with a few months to live, has embarked on a cruise ship voyage to be close to the woman he loves, 40-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. He dares to hope she might return his feelings … but doesn’t tell her of his imminent demise. The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his death.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger [192 pages]: Believe it or not, I didn’t read this until December 2018! From the start I found Holden Caulfield’s voice funny and surprising, so drenched in period American slang you can never forget when and where it’s set. He’s a typical lazy teenager, flunking four subjects when he’s kicked out of Pencey Prep. The first part is a languorous farewell tour to classmates and teachers before he takes the train back to NYC. Once there, he lives it up in a hotel for a few days. A shocker of an ending is to come.
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West [110 pages]: Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden and the unloved. Not surprisingly, these second-hand woes start to get him down, and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference feels utterly contemporary.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton [181 pages]: Unlike Wharton’s NYC society novels, this has a rural setting, but the plot is not dissimilar to that of The Age of Innocence, with extra tragic sauce. The title character makes the mistake of falling in love with his wife’s cousin, and the would-be lovers are punished one New England winter. A quarter of a century later, the narrator learns what happened to this sad old man. It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read this, and I like the catharsis of a good old-fashioned tragedy. Maybe I’ll reread it soon.
Not enough women on my list! I should redress that by reading some more Jean Rhys…
Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll keep adding 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 classics on your shelves?
Booker Prize 2020: Two More Shortlist Reviews and a Prediction
The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.
Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?
The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.
It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.
But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.
My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).
Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.
Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.
There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.