Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Door (#MARM)
It’s my fifth year participating in the annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by indomitable Canadian blogger Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years for this challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips; and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her some love?
Like the Beatles, she’s worked in so many different genres and styles that I don’t see how anyone could say they don’t like her – you just haven’t explored her oeuvre deeply enough. Although she’s best known for her fiction, she started off as a poet, with a whole five collections published in the 1960s before her first novel appeared. I’d previously read her Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 and Dearly, my top poetry read of 2020.
The Door (2007) was at that point her first poetry release in 12 years and features a number of the same themes that permeate her novels and nonfiction: memory, writing, ageing, travel and politics. I particularly like the early poems where she reinhabits memories of childhood and early adulthood, often through objects. Such artifacts are “pocketed as pure mementoes / of some once indelible day,” she writes in “Year of the Hen.”
These are followed by a trilogy about the death of the family’s pet cat, Blackie. “We get too sentimental / over dead animals. / We turn maudlin,” she acknowledges in “Mourning for Cats,” yet “Blackie in Antarctica” injects some humour as she remembers how her sister kept the cat’s corpse in the freezer until she could come home to bury it. Also on the lighter side is a long “where are they now?” update for the Owl and the Pussycat.
There are also meta reflections on poetry, slightly menacing observations on the weather (an implacable, fate-like force) and the seasons (autumn = hunting), virtual visits to the Arctic, mild complaints about the elderly not being taken seriously, and thoughts on duty.
Four in a row muse about war – the Vietnam War in particular, I think? “The Last Rational Man” is a sinister standout, depicting a figure who is doomed under Caligula’s reign. Whoever she may have had in mind when she wrote this, it’s just as relevant 15 years later.
In the final, title poem, which appears to be modelled on the Seven Ages of Man, a door is a metaphor for life’s transitions and, ultimately, for death.
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It’s dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings closed.
Apart from a few end rhymes, Atwood relies more on theme than on sonic technique or form. That, I think, makes her poetry accessible to those who are new to or suspicious of verse. Happy birthday, M.A., and thank you for your literary wisdom and innovation! (Little Free Library)
The Blind Assassin Reread for #MARM, and Other Doorstoppers
It’s the fourth annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila at Big Reading Life and I did a buddy reread of The Blind Assassin, which was historically my favourite Atwood novel. I’d picked up a free paperback the last time I was at The Book Thing of Baltimore. Below are some quick thoughts based on what I shared with Laila as I was reading.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Winner of the Booker Prize and Hammett Prize; shortlisted for the Orange Prize
I must have first read this about 13 years ago. The only thing I remembered before I started my reread was that there is a science fiction book-within-the-book. I couldn’t recall anything else about the setup before I read in the blurb about the suspicious circumstances of Laura’s death in 1945. Indeed, the opening line, which deserves to be famous, is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
I always love novels about sisters, and Iris is a terrific narrator. Now a cantankerous elderly woman, she takes us back through her family history: her father’s button factory and his clashes with organizing workers, her mother’s early death, and her enduring relationship with their housekeeper, Reenie. Iris and Laura met a young man named Alex Thomas, a war orphan with radical views, at the factory’s Labour Day picnic, and it was clear early on that Laura was smitten, while Iris went on to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche industrialist.
Interspersed with Iris’s recollections are newspaper articles that give a sense that the Chase family might be cursed, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, Laura’s posthumously published novel. Daring for its time in terms of both explicit content and literary form (e.g., no speech marks), it has a storyline rather similar to 1984, with an upper-crust woman having trysts with a working-class man in his squalid lodgings. During their time snatched together, he also tells her a story inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the time. I was less engaged by the story-within-the-story(-within-the-story) this time around compared to Iris’s current life and flashbacks.
In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that there was a twist coming, and in my impatience to see if I was right I ended up skimming much of the second half of the novel. My hunch was proven correct, but I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to enjoy the journey more a second time around. Overall, this didn’t wow me on a reread, but then again, I am less dazzled by literary “tricks” these days. At the sentence level, however, the writing was fantastic, including descriptions of places, seasons and characters’ psychology. It’s intriguing to think about whether we can ever truly know Laura given Iris’s guardianship of her literary legacy.
If you haven’t read this before, find a time when you can give it your full attention and sink right in. It’s so wise on family secrets and the workings of memory and celebrity, and the weaving in of storylines in preparation for the big reveal is masterful.
Some favourite passages:
“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”
“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
What to read for #MARM next year, I wonder??
In general, I have been struggling mightily with doorstoppers this year. I just don’t seem to have the necessary concentration, so Novellas in November has been a boon. I’ve been battling with Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel for months, and another attempted buddy read of 460 pages has also gone by the wayside. I’ll write a bit more on this for #LoveYourLibrary on Monday, including a couple of recent DNFs. The Blind Assassin was only my third successful doorstopper of the year so far. After The Absolute Book, the other one was:
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
In Towles’ third novel – a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana – brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York. The book features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes. However, Emmett is a dull protagonist, and it’s disappointing that Sally, one of just two main female characters, plays such a minor role. A danger with an episodic narrative is that random events and encounters pile up but don’t do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles’ fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.
See my full review for BookBrowse; see also my related article on Studebaker cars.
With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.
Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?
First Four in a Row: Márai, Maupin, McEwan, McKay
I announced a few new TBR reading projects back in May 2020, including a Four in a Row Challenge (see the ‘rules’, such as they are, in my opening post). It only took me, um, nearly 11 months to complete a first set! The problem was that I kept changing my mind on which four to include and acquiring more that technically should go into the sequence, e.g. McCracken, McGregor; also, I stalled on the Maupin for ages. But here we are at last. Debbie, meanwhile, took up the challenge and ran with it, completing a set of four novels – also by M authors, clearly a numerous and tempting bunch – back in October. Here’s hers.
I’m on my way to completing a few more sets: I’ve read one G, one and a bit H, and I selected a group of four L. I’ve not chosen a nonfiction quartet yet, but that could be an interesting exercise: I file by author surname even within categories like science/nature and travel, so this could throw up interesting combinations of topics. Do feel free to join in this challenge if, like me, you could use a push to get through more of the books on your shelves.
Embers by Sándor Márai (1942)
[Translated from the Hungarian by Carol Brown Janeway]
My first work of Hungarian literature.* This was a random charity shop purchase, simply because I’m always trying to read more international literature and had enjoyed translations by Carol Brown Janeway before. In 1940, two old men are reunited for the first time in 41 years at a gloomy castle, where they will dine by candlelight and, over the course of a long conversation, face up to the secret that nearly destroyed their friendship. This is the residence of 75-year-old Henrik, usually referred to as “the General,” who lives alone apart from Nini, his 91-year-old wet nurse. His wife, Krisztina, died 33 years ago.
Henrik was 10 when he met Konrad at an academy school. They were soon the best of friends, but two things came between them: first was the difference in their backgrounds (“each forgave the other’s original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other”); second was their love for the same woman.
I appreciated the different setup to this one – a male friendship, just a few very old characters, the probing of the past through memory and dialogue – but it was so languid that I struggled to stay engaged with the plot.
*My next will be Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, another charity shop find.
“My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded.”
“Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world.”
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978)
I’d picked this up from the free bookshop we used to have in the local mall (the source of my next two as well) and started it during Lockdown #1 because in The Novel Cure it is given as a prescription for Loneliness. Berthoud and Elderkin suggest it can make you feel like part of a gang of old friends, and it’s “as close to watching television as literature gets” due to the episodic format – the first four Tales books were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle.
How I love a perfect book and bookmark combination!
The titled chapters are each about three pages long, which made it an ideal bedside book – I would read a chapter per night before sleep. The issue with this piecemeal reading strategy, though, was that I never got to know any of the characters; because I’d often only pick up the book once a week or so, I forgot who people were and what was going on. That didn’t stop individual vignettes from being entertaining, but meant it didn’t all come together for me.
Maupin opens on Mary Ann Singleton, a 25-year-old secretary who goes to San Francisco on vacation and impulsively decides to stay. She rooms at Anna Madrigal’s place on Barbary Lane and meets a kooky assortment of folks, many of them gay – including her new best friend, Michael Tolliver, aka “Mouse.” There are parties and affairs, a pregnancy and a death, all told with a light touch and a clear love for the characters; dialogue predominates. While it’s very much of its time, it manages not to feel too dated overall. I can see why many have taken the series to heart, but don’t think I’ll go further with Maupin’s work.
Note: Long before I tried the book, I knew about it through one of my favourite Bookshop Band songs, “Cleveland,” which picks up on Mary Ann’s sense of displacement as she ponders whether she’d be better off back in Ohio after all. Selected lyrics:
Quaaludes and cocktails
A story book lane
A girl with three names
A place, post-Watergate
Freed from its bird cage
Where the unafraid parade
Perhaps, we should all
Go back to Cleveland
Where we know what’s around the bend
Citizens of Atlantis
The Madrigal Enchantress cries
And we decide, to stay and bide our time
On this far-out, far-flung peninsula.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (2014)
Although it’s good to see McEwan take on a female perspective – a rarer choice for him, though it has shown up in Atonement and On Chesil Beach – this is a lesser novel from him, only interesting insomuch as it combines elements from two of his previous works, The Child in Time (legislation around child welfare) and Enduring Love (a religious stalker). Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, has to decide whether 17-year-old Adam, a bright and musical young man with acute leukaemia, should be treated with blood transfusions despite his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ objection.
She rules that the doctors should go ahead with the treatment. “He must be protected from his religion and from himself.” Adam, now better but adrift from the religion he was raised in, starts stalking Fiona and sending her letters and poems. Estranged from her husband, who wants her to condone his affair with a young colleague, and fond of Adam, Fiona spontaneously kisses the young man while traveling for work near Newcastle. But thereafter she ignores his communications, and when he doesn’t seek treatment for his recurring cancer and dies, she blames herself.
[END OF SPOILERS]
It’s worth noting that the AI in McEwan’s most recent full-length novel, Machines Like Me, is also named Adam, and in both books there’s uncertainty about whether the Adam character is supposed to be a child substitute.
The Birth House by Ami McKay (2006)
Dora is the only daughter to be born into the Rare family of Nova Scotia’s Scots Bay in five generations. At age 17, she becomes an apprentice to Marie Babineau, a Cajun midwife and healer who relies on ancient wisdom and appeals to the Virgin Mary to keep women safe and grant them what they want, whether that’s a baby or a miscarriage. As the 1910s advance and the men of the village start leaving for the war, the old ways represented by Miss B. and Dora come to be seen as a threat. Dr. Thomas wants women to take out motherhood insurance and commit to delivering their babies at the new Canning Maternity Home with the help of chloroform and forceps. “Why should you ladies continue to suffer, most notably the trials of childbirth, when there are safe, modern alternatives available to you?” he asks.
Encouraged into marriage at an early age, Dora has to put her vocation on hold to be a wife to Archer Bigelow, a drunkard with big plans for how he’s going to transform the area with windmills that generate electricity. Dora’s narration is interspersed with journal entries, letters, faux newspaper articles, what look like genuine period advertisements, and a glossary of herbal remedies – creating what McKay, in her Author’s Note, calls a “literary scrapbook.” I love epistolary formats, and there are so many interesting themes and appealing secondary characters here. Early obstetrics is not the only aspect of medicine included; there is also an exploration of “hysteria” and its treatment, and the Spanish flu makes a late appearance. Dora, away in Boston at the time, urges her friends from the Occasional Knitters’ Society to block the road to the Bay, make gauze masks, and wash their hands with hot water and soap.
There are a few places where the narrative is almost overwhelmed by all the (admittedly, fascinating) facts McKay, a debut author, turned up in her research, and where the science versus superstition dichotomy seems too simplistic, but for the most part this was just the sort of absorbing, atmospheric historical fiction that I like best. McKay took inspiration from her own home, an old birthing house in the Bay of Fundy.
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields (Blog Tour Review)
“Let’s hear it for love.”
Last year I read, or reread, six Carol Shields novels (my roundup post). The ongoing World Editions reissue series is my excuse to continue rereading her this year – Mary Swann, another I’m keen to try again, is due out in August.
The Republic of Love (1992), the seventh of Shields’s 10 novels, was a runner-up for the Guardian Fiction Prize and was adapted into a 2003 film directed by Deepa Mehta. (I love Emilia Fox; how have I not seen this?!)
The chapters alternate between the perspectives of radio disc jockey Tom Avery and mermaid researcher Fay McLeod, two thirtysomething Winnipeg lonely hearts who each have their share of broken relationships behind them – three divorces for Tom; a string of long-term live-in boyfriends for Fay. It’s clear that these two characters are going to meet and fall in love (at almost exactly halfway through), but Shields is careful to interrogate the myths of love at first sight and happily ever after.
On this reread, I was most struck by the subplot about Fay’s parents’ marriage and especially liked the secondary characters (like Fay’s godmother, Onion) and the surprising small-world moments that take place in Winnipeg even though it was then a city of some 600,000 people. Shields has a habit of recording minor characters’ monologues (friends, family, radio listeners, and colleagues) word for word without letting Fay or Tom’s words in edgewise.
Tom sometimes feels like a caricature – the male/female dynamic is not as successful here as in the Happenstance dual volume, which also divides the perspective half and half – and I wasn’t entirely sure what the mermaid theme is meant to contribute. Mermaids are sexually ambiguous, and in Fay’s Jungian interpretation represent the soul emerging from the unconscious. In any case, they’re an excuse for Fay to present papers at folklore conferences and spend four weeks traveling in Europe (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, northwest France).
Straightforward romance plots don’t hold much appeal for me anymore, but Shields always impresses with her compassionate understanding of human nature and the complexities of relationships.
This was not one of my favorites of hers, and the passage of nearly five years didn’t change that, but it’s still pleasant and will suit readers of similarly low-key, observant novels by women: Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace, and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.
“Most people’s lives don’t wrap up nearly as neatly as they’d like to think. Fay’s sure of that. Most people’s lives are a mess.”
Fay’s mother: “I sometimes think that the best thing about your mermaids is the fact that they never age.”
The Republic of Love was reissued in the UK by World Editions in February. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
I was delighted to take part in the blog tour for The Republic of Love. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing.
Review Book Catch-Up: Fox, Le Riche, Nunez, and Thammavongsa
Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.
The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)
The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.
The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.
Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)
Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.
For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”
I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)
My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.
Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.
Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.
The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.
First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)
Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.
The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.
Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
February Releases by de Visser, George, Lawson, and Smiley
Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.
That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser
[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]
Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.
Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.
Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.
One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.
As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.
Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George
Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.
1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.
As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.
Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)
A favorite passage:
[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)
My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”
Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.
I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)
I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Review Book Catch-Up: Bamforth, McGrath, Mertz
Today I have a book of medico-philosophical musings, a triptych of novels about the resonant moments of a Canadian childhood, and a varied collection of ekphrastic poems.
Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook by Iain Bamforth (2020)
A doctor based in Strasbourg, Iain Bamforth offers a commonplace book full of philosophical musings on medicine and wellness from the ancient world to today. All through December I would read just a few pages at a time as a palate cleanser between larger chunks of other books. Most of the entries are under three pages in length, with some one-sentence dictums interspersed. The point of reference is broadly European, with frequent allusions to English, French, and German literature (Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann) and to Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The themes include memory, overtreatment, technology, and our modern wellness culture. If you’re equally interested in medicine and philosophy, this is a perfect bedside book for you; if you only gravitate towards one or the other, it’s possible that you could run low on patience for the high-brow rumination. My favourite piece was on “panicology,” and two stand-out lines are below.
“Prognostication is where writers and doctors resemble each other most.”
“A proper attitude to death can be a source of life. That is medicine’s only profundity.”
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath (2011–19)
I’m indulging in one last listen to our holiday music compilations as I write, before putting everything away until a hoped-for ‘Christmas in July’ with family and friends. Yesterday I devoured Broke City, the third novella in Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa Trilogy, in one sitting and treasured all the Christmas and pine tree references: they bind the book together but also connect it satisfyingly back to Book 1, Santa Rosa, which opened with Christine’s neighbour preparing a Christmas cake one summer. That annual ritual and its built-in waiting period take on new significance when the adult Christine’s life changes suddenly.
In this trio of linked narratives about Christine’s 1960s Edmonton childhood, totem objects and smells evoke memories that persist for decades: Pine-Sol, her parents’ cigarettes, the local meat-packing plant. Even at age seven, Christine is making synaesthetic links between colours and scents as she ponders language and imagines other lives. That her recollections – of a carnival, the neighbourhood grocery store, queasy road trips to her grandmother’s in Saskatchewan, a drive-in movie, and Christmas Eve with her father’s side of the family – so overlap with my late-1980s mental flipbook proves not that suburban Maryland and upstate New York (where I grew up and my mother’s home turf, respectively) are so similar to Alberta, but that this is the universal stuff of a later 20th-century North American childhood.
The other night, discussing The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my book club noted how difficult it is to capture childhood in all its joy and distress. McGrath does so superbly, exploiting the dramatic irony between what Christine overhears and what she understands. Readers know her parents’ marriage is in trouble because she never sees them laughing or happy, and she hears her mother complain to her father about his drinking. We know the family is struggling because a man from the City delivers a box of Spam, standard issue to all those who are out of work over the winter. A simple mishearing (“clatteral,” “brain tuber”; thinking that an abattoir sounds “like a fancy ballroom”) can be a perfect example of the child perspective, too. Meanwhile, the pop culture references situate the story in the time period.
Towards the end of Broke City, young Christine declares, “I shall be unusual.” As we root for the girl to outrun her sadder memories and forge a good life, we hope that – like all of us – she’ll find a balance between the ordinary and the exceptional through self-knowledge. While Broke City was my favourite and could probably stand alone, it’s special to chart how moments turn into memories across the three books. I’d recommend the trilogy to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Tessa Hadley, and Elizabeth Hay. I particularly loved the hybrid-poetry style of the Prologue to Santa Rosa (similar to what Bernardine Evaristo employs), so I would also be interested to try one of McGrath’s two poetry collections.
Some favourite passages:
“he walks at the same time everyday summer and winter
early morning when the day still makes promises” (Santa Rosa)
“Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world. … Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now. How did this happen? There must have been something she wasn’t paying attention to, something she didn’t see coming.” (Broke City)
With thanks to Wendy McGrath and Edmonton’s NeWest Press for the e-copies for review. I learned about the books from Marcie; see her appreciation of McGrath’s work at Buried in Print.
Color and Line by Carole Mertz (2021)
“Ekphrastic” was a new vocabulary word for me – or, if I’d heard it before, I needed a reminder. It refers to poetry written to describe or respond to artworks. Many of Carole Mertz’s poems, especially in the first section, attest to her love of the visual arts. This is the Ohio church organist’s first full-length collection after the 2019 chapbook Toward a Peeping Sunrise and extensive publication in literary magazines. She was inspired by art ranging in date from 1555 to 2019. “Come Share a Glass with Me,” for instance, is a prose poem that imagines the story behind a Van Gogh. I loved the line “The ewer sits expectant” in a short poem capturing The Staircase by Xavier Mellery.
One could look up all of the artworks discussed, but the descriptions here are so richly detailed that I often didn’t feel I needed to. Two paintings in a row depict sisters. A poem about Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist draws on the Bible story, but also on its many portrayals through art history. Other topics include concern for the Earth and beloved works of literature. I particularly enjoyed “The Word in Joseph’s Hand,” a Christmas hymn that can be sung to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and a haiku about a cardinal, “a flash of bright red / … in the garden”. Below is my favourite of the poems; it incorporates the titles of 14 books, nine of them by Anne Tyler. See if you can spot them all!
Color and Line was released by Kelsay Books on the 2nd. My thanks to Carole Mertz for the e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
And, just for fun, put a description of or link to your favourite Bernie-in-mittens meme in the comments.
Some of My Most Anticipated Releases of 2021
Although 120+ books that will be published in 2021 are already on my radar, I’ve limited myself to the 20 I’m most excited about. The modest number is a cheat in that I’ve already read a couple of books from this period in advance (and I’m currently reading another two), and I haven’t listed any that I already own as proofs or finished copies (pictured here) or have been promised. With a couple of exceptions, these books are due out between January and June.
I’m also not counting these three forthcoming books that I’ve sponsored via Kickstarter (the Trauma anthology) or Unbound:
Two that I read as U.S. e-books but would recommend that UK-based readers look out for in 2021 are Memorial by Bryan Washington (Jan. 7, Atlantic) and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (March 4, Penguin).
The following are in UK release date order, within sections by genre; the quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads. Much more fiction is catching my eye this time.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan [Jan. 14, Chatto & Windus / May 25, Knopf] “In a world of perennial fire and growing extinctions, Anna’s aged mother … increasingly escapes through her hospital window … When Anna’s finger vanishes and a few months later her knee disappears, Anna too feels the pull of the window. … A strangely beautiful novel about hope and love and orange-bellied parrots.” I’ve had mixed success with Flanagan, but the blurb draws me and I’ve read good early reviews so far. [Library hold]
The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin [Jan. 21, Hodder & Stoughton / Jan. 12, Putnam] “Cinderella married the man of her dreams – the perfect ending she deserved after diligently following all the fairy-tale rules. Yet now, two children and thirteen-and-a-half years later, things have gone badly wrong. One night, she sneaks out of the palace to get help from the Witch who, for a price, offers love potions to disgruntled housewives.” A feminist retelling. I loved Grushin’s previous novel, Forty Rooms. [Edelweiss download]
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. [Jan. 21, Quercus / Jan. 5, G.P. Putnam’s Sons] “A singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.” Lots of hype about this one. I’m getting Days Without End vibes, and the mention of copious biblical references is a draw for me rather than a turn-off. The cover looks so much like the UK cover of The Vanishing Half! [Publisher request pending]
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden [Jan. 28, Canongate] “Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen. Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs.” [NetGalley download / Library hold]
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood [Feb. 16, Bloomsbury / Riverhead] “A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans … Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray … [and] the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.” Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy, is an all-time favorite of mine. [NetGalley download / Publisher request pending]
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson [Feb. 18, Chatto & Windus / Feb. 16, Knopf Canada] “It’s North Ontario in 1972, and seven-year-old Clara’s teenage sister Rose has just run away from home. At the same time, a strange man – Liam – drives up to the house next door, which he has just inherited from Mrs Orchard, a kindly old woman who was friendly to Clara … A beautiful portrait of a small town, a little girl and an exploration of childhood.” I’ve loved the two Lawson novels I’ve read. [Publisher request pending]
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro [March 2, Faber & Faber / Knopf] Synopsis from Faber e-mail: “Klara and the Sun is the story of an ‘Artificial Friend’ who … is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans. A luminous narrative about humanity, hope and the human heart.” I’m not an Ishiguro fan per se, but this looks set to be one of the biggest books of the year. I’m tempted to pre-order a signed copy as part of an early bird ticket to a Faber Members live-streamed event with him in early March.
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley [March 18, Hodder & Stoughton / April 20, Algonquin Books] “The Soho that Precious and Tabitha live and work in is barely recognizable anymore. … Billionaire-owner Agatha wants to kick the women out to build expensive restaurants and luxury flats. Men like Robert, who visit the brothel, will have to go elsewhere. … An insightful and ambitious novel about property, ownership, wealth and inheritance.” This sounds very different to Elmet, but I liked Mozley’s writing enough to give it a try.
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge [March 30, Algonquin Books; April 29, Serpent’s Tail] “Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson” is expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a doctor. “When a young man from Haiti proposes, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. … Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States.” I loved Greenidge’s underappreciated debut, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. [Edelweiss download]
An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon [April 9, Dialogue Books] “Richly imagined with art, proverbs and folk tales, this moving and modern novel follows Oto through life at home and at boarding school in Nigeria, through the heartbreak of living as a boy despite their profound belief they are a girl, and through a hunger for freedom that only a new life in the United States can offer. … a powerful coming-of-age story that explores complex desires as well as challenges of family, identity, gender and culture, and what it means to feel whole.”
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead [May 4, Doubleday / Knopf] “In 1940s London, after a series of reckless romances and a spell flying to aid the war effort, Marian embarks on a treacherous, epic flight in search of the freedom she has always craved. She is never seen again. More than half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a troubled Hollywood starlet beset by scandal, is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves in her biopic.” I loved Seating Arrangements and have been waiting for a new Shipstead novel for seven years!
The Anthill by Julianne Pachico [May 6, Faber & Faber; this has been out since May 2020 in the USA, but was pushed back a year in the UK] “Linda returns to Colombia after 20 years away. Sent to England after her mother’s death when she was eight, she’s searching for the person who can tell her what’s happened in the time that has passed. Matty – Lina’s childhood confidant, her best friend – now runs a refuge called The Anthill for the street kids of Medellín.” Pachico was our Young Writer of the Year shadow panel winner.
Filthy Animals: Stories by Brandon Taylor [June 24, Daunt Books / June 21, Riverhead] “In the series of linked stories at the heart of Filthy Animals, set among young creatives in the American Midwest, a young man treads delicate emotional waters as he navigates a series of sexually fraught encounters with two dancers in an open relationship, forcing him to weigh his vulnerabilities against his loneliness.” Sounds like the perfect follow-up for those of us who loved his Booker-shortlisted debut novel, Real Life.
Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal [USA only? Pamela Dorman Books; no cover or exact date yet, just “Summer 2021”] “Combines the comedic pathos of John Irving with the brilliant generational storytelling of Jane Smiley and the wildly rich and quirky characters of fellow Minnesotan Anne Tyler … set on a lake in Northern Minnesota, about a beloved but dying family restaurant and whether it can be saved.” I was disappointed by Stradal’s latest, but love Kitchens of the Great Midwest enough to give him another try.
Matrix by Lauren Groff [Sept. 23, Cornerstone / Riverhead; no cover yet] “Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, … seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease. … a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around.” Yuck to medieval history in general as a setting, but I love Groff’s work enough to get hold of this one anyway.
Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn [Jan. 21, William Collins; June 1, Viking] “A variety of wildlife not seen in many lifetimes has rebounded on the irradiated grounds of Chernobyl. A lush forest supports thousands of species that are extinct or endangered everywhere else on earth in the Korean peninsula’s narrow DMZ. … Islands of Abandonment is a tour through these new ecosystems … ultimately a story of redemption”. Good news about nature is always nice to find. [Publisher request pending]
The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein [March 2, Text Publishing – might be Australia only; I’ll have an eagle eye out for news of a UK release] “This book is about ghosts and gods and flying saucers; certainty in the absence of knowledge; how the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the distance between the world as it is and as we’d like it to be can stunt us or save us.” Krasnostein was our Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel winner in 2019. She told us a bit about this work in progress at the prize ceremony and I was intrigued!
A History of Scars: A Memoir by Laura Lee [March 2, Atria Books; no sign of a UK release] “In this stunning debut, Laura Lee weaves unforgettable and eye-opening essays on a variety of taboo topics. … Through the vivid imagery of mountain climbing, cooking, studying writing, and growing up Korean American, Lee explores the legacy of trauma on a young queer child of immigrants as she reconciles the disparate pieces of existence that make her whole.” I was drawn to this one by Roxane Gay’s high praise.
Everybody: A Book about Freedom by Olivia Laing [April 29, Picador / May 4, W. W. Norton & Co.] “The body is a source of pleasure and of pain, at once hopelessly vulnerable and radiant with power. … Laing charts an electrifying course through the long struggle for bodily freedom, using the life of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to explore gay rights and sexual liberation, feminism, and the civil rights movement.” Wellcome Prize fodder from the author of The Lonely City.
Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit by Lyanda Lynn Haupt [May 4, Little, Brown Spark; no sign of a UK release] “Cutting-edge science supports a truth that poets, artists, mystics, and earth-based cultures across the world have proclaimed over millennia: life on this planet is radically interconnected. … In the tradition of Rachel Carson, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Mary Oliver, Haupt writes with urgency and grace, reminding us that at the crossroads of science, nature, and spirit we find true hope.” I’m a Haupt fan.
Which of these do you want to read, too?
What other upcoming 2021 titles are you looking forward to?
Mrs. Shields & Me: (Re)reading Carol Shields in 2020
It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.
2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.
2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.
Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.
Small Ceremonies (1976)
Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.
What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.
The Box Garden (1977)
The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.
The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.
A Celibate Season (1991)
“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”
This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.
Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.
This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.
What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.
Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”
Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!
I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.
The Stone Diaries (1995)
What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.
Larry’s Party (1997)
What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.
Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.
Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”
- That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.
Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.