For my second spot on the official Dylan Thomas Prize blog tour, I’m featuring the debut poetry collection If All the World and Love Were Young (2019) by Stephen Sexton, which was awarded the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Sexton lives in Belfast (so this is also an incidental contribution to Reading Ireland Month) and was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition and a 2018 Eric Gregory Award.
The book is a highly original hybrid of video game imagery and a narrative about the final illness of his mother, who died in 2012. As a child the poet was obsessed with Super Mario World. He overlays the game’s landscapes onto his life to create an almost hallucinogenic fairy tale. Into this virtual world, which blends idyll and threat, comes the news of his mother’s cancer:
One summer’s day I’m summoned home to hear of cells which split and glitch
so haphazardly someone is called to intervene with poisons
drawn from strange and peregrine trees flourishing in distant kingdoms.
Her doctors are likened to wizards attempting magic –
In blue scrubs the Merlins apply various elixirs potions
panaceas to her body
– until they give up and acknowledge the limitations of medicine:
So we wait in the private room turn the egg timer of ourselves.
Hippocrates in his white coat brings with him a shake of the head …
where we cannot do some good
at least we must refrain from harm.
Super Mario settings provide the headings: Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Forest of Illusion, Chocolate Island and so on. There are also references to bridges, Venetian canals, mines and labyrinths, as if to give illness the gravity of a mythological hero’s journey. Meanwhile, the title repeats the first line of “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Raleigh, which, as a rebuttal to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” eschews romanticism in favor of realism about change and mortality. Sexton wanted to include both views. (He discusses his inspirations in detail in this Irish Times article.)
Apart from one rough pantoum (“Choco-Ghost House”), I didn’t notice any other forms being used. This is free verse; internally unpunctuated, it has a run-on feel. While I do think readers are likely to get more out of the poems if they have some familiarity with Super Mario World and/or are gamers themselves, this is a striking book that examines bereavement in a new way.
Note: Be sure to stick around past “The End” for the Credits, which summarize all the book’s bizarrely diverse elements, and a lovely final poem that’s rather like a benediction.
My thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so there are poetry collections nominated as well as novels and short stories.
To recap, the 12 books on this year’s longlist are:
- Surge, Jay Bernard
- Flèche, Mary Jean Chan (my review)
- Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy
- Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan (my preview & an excerpt)
- Black Car Burning, Helen Mort
- Virtuoso, Yelena Moskovich
- Inland, Téa Obreht
- Stubborn Archivist, Yara Rodrigues Fowler (my review)
- If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton
- The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
- Lot, Bryan Washington
The shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, April 7th.
My pre-Valentine’s Day reading involved a lot of books with “love”, “heart”, “romance”, etc. in the title (here’s the post that resulted). I ended up with a number of leftovers, plus some incidental reads from late in 2019, that focused on marriage – whether it’s happy or troubled, or not technically a marriage at all.
Marriage: A Duet by Anne Taylor Fleming (2003)
Two novellas in one volume. In “A Married Woman,” Caroline Betts’s husband, William, is in a coma after a stroke or heart attack. As she and her adult children visit him in the hospital and ponder the decision they will have to make, she remains haunted by the affair William had with one of their daughter’s friends 15 years ago. Although at the time it seemed to destroy their marriage, she stayed and they built a new relationship.
I fully expected the second novella, “A Married Man,” to give William’s perspective (like in Carol Shields’s Happenstance), but instead it’s a separate story with different characters, though still set in California c. 2000. Here the dynamic is flipped: it’s the wife who had an affair and the husband who has to try to come to terms with it. David and Marcia Sanderson start marriage therapy at New Beginnings and, with the help of Prozac and Viagra, David hopes to get past his bitterness and give in to his wife’s romantic overtures.
Fleming is a careful observer of how marriages change over time and in response to shocks, but overall I found the tone of these tales abrasive and the language slightly raunchy.
Not quite about a marriage, but a relationship so lovely that I can’t resist including it…
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)
Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect. I’d long meant to try Kent Haruf’s work and even had the first two Plainsong trilogy books on the shelf, but this novella, picked up secondhand at a bargain price from a charity warehouse, demanded to be read first. Fans of Elizabeth Strout’s work will find in Haruf’s Holt, Colorado an echo of her Crosby, Maine – fictional towns where ordinary folk live out their quiet triumphs and sorrows. From the first line, which opens in medias res, Haruf draws you in, making you feel as if you’ve known these characters forever: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” She has a proposal for her neighbor. She’s a widow; he’s a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to melancholy thoughts about how they could have done better by their families (“life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected,” Louis says). Would he like to come over to her house at nights to talk and sleep? Just two ageing creatures huddling together for comfort; no hanky-panky expected or desired.
So that’s just what they do. Before long, though, they come up against the disapproval of locals and family, especially when Addie’s grandson comes to stay and they join Louis to make a makeshift trio. The matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion in this story about the everyday miracle of human connection. There’s even a neat little reference to Haruf’s Benediction at the start of Chapter 34 (again like Strout, who peppered Olive, Again with cameo appearances from characters introduced in her earlier books). I also loved that the characters live on Cedar Street – I grew up on a Cedar Street. This gets my highest recommendation.
State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts by Nick Hornby (2019)
Hornby has been making quite a name for himself in film and television. State of the Union is also a TV series, and reads a lot like a script because it’s composed mostly of the dialogue between Tom and Louise, an estranged couple who each week meet up for a drink in the pub before their marriage counseling appointment. There’s very little descriptive writing, and much of the time Hornby doesn’t even need to add speech attributions because it’s clear who’s saying what in the back and forth.
The crisis in this marriage was precipitated by Louise, a gerontologist, sleeping with someone else after her sex life with Tom, an underemployed music writer, dried up. They rehash their life together, what went wrong, and what might happen next in 10 snappy chapters that are funny but also cut close to the bone. What married person hasn’t wondered where the magic went as midlife approaches? (Tom: “I hate to be unromantic, but convenient placement is pretty much the definition of marital sex.”)
Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle (1988)
The fourth and final volume of the autobiographical Crosswicks Journal. This one focuses on L’Engle’s 40-year marriage to Hugh Franklin, an actor best known for his role as Dr. Charles Tyler in All My Children between 1970 and 1983. In the book’s present day, the summer of 1986, she’s worried about Hugh when his bladder cancer, which starts off seeming treatable, leads to every possible complication and deterioration. Her days are divided between home, work (speaking engagements; teaching workshops at a writers’ conference) and the hospital.
Drifting between past and present, she remembers how she and Hugh met in the 1940s NYC theatre world, their early years of marriage, becoming parents to Josephine and Bion and then, when close friends died suddenly, adopting their goddaughter, and taking on the adventure of renovating Crosswicks farmhouse in Connecticut and temporarily running the local general store. As usual, L’Engle writes beautifully about having faith in a time of uncertainty. (The title refers not just to marriage, but also to Bach pieces that she, a devoted amateur piano player, used for practice.)
A wonderful passage about marriage:
“Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.”
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (2003)
My latest book club read. On a flight to Finland, where her supposed genius writer of a husband, Joe Castleman, will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. When she first met Joe in 1956, she was a student at Smith College and he was her (married) creative writing professor, even though he’d only had a couple of stories published in middling literary magazines. Joan was a promising author in her own right, but when Joe left his first wife for her and she dropped out of college, she willingly took up a supporting role instead, and has remained in it for decades.
Ever since his first novel, The Walnut, a thinly veiled account of leaving Carol for Joan, Joe has produced books “populated by unhappy, unfaithful American husbands and their complicated wives.” Add on the fact that he’s Jewish and you have a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth type, a serial womanizer who’s publicly uxorious.
Alternating between the trip to Helsinki and telling scenes from earlier in their marriage, this short novel is deceptively profound. The setup may feel familiar, but Joan’s narration is bitingly funny and the points about the greater value attributed to men’s work are still valid. There’s also a juicy twist I never saw coming, as Joan decides what role she wants to play in perpetuating Joe’s literary legacy. My second by Wolitzer; I’ll certainly read more.
Plus a DNF:
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (2008)
In 1953 in San Francisco, Pearlie Cook learns two major secrets about her husband Holland after his old friend shows up at their door. Greer tries to present another fact about the married couple as a big surprise, but had planted so many clues, starting on page 9, that I’d already guessed it and wasn’t shocked at the end of Part I as I was supposed to be. Greer writes perfectly capably, but I wasn’t able to connect with this one and didn’t love Less as much as most people did. I don’t think I’ll be trying another of his books. (I read 93 pages out of 195.)
Have you read any books about marriage recently?
It feels like the whole world has changed in the past week, doesn’t it? I hope you all are keeping well and turning to books for comfort and escape. Reading Ireland Month is run each March by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m wishing you a happy (if subdued) St. Patrick’s Day with this post on the Irish books I’ve been perusing recently. Even before this coronavirus situation heated up, I’d been struggling with my focus, so only one of these was a proper read, while the rest ended up being skims. In the meantime, I’m trying out a new blog design and have been working to create more intuitive menu headings and helpful intro pages.
Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain (1996)
Before writing this landmark memoir, O’Faolain was a TV documentary producer and Irish Times columnist. Her upbringing in poverty is reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s: one of nine children, she had a violent father and an alcoholic mother who cheated on each other and never seemed to achieve happiness. Educated at a convent school and at university in Dublin (until she dropped out), she was a literary-minded romantic who bounced between relationships and couldn’t decide whether marriage or a career should be her highest aim. Though desperate not to become her mother – a bitter, harried woman who’d wanted to be a book reviewer – she didn’t want to miss out on a chance for love either.
O’Faolain feels she was born slightly too early to benefit from the women’s movement. “I could see sexism in operation everywhere in society; once your consciousness goes ping you can never again stop seeing that. But I was quite unaware of how consistently I put the responsibility for my personal happiness off onto men.” Chapter 16 is a standout, though with no explanation (all her other lovers were men) it launches into an account of her 15 years living with Nell McCafferty, “by far the most life-giving relationship of my life.”
Although this is in many respects an ordinary story, the geniality and honesty of the writing account for its success. It was an instant bestseller in Ireland, spending 20 weeks at number one, and made the author a household name. I especially loved her encounters with literary figures. For instance, on a year’s scholarship at Hull she didn’t quite meet Philip Larkin, who’d been tasked with looking after her, but years later had a bizarre dinner with him and his mother, both rather deaf; and David Lodge was a friend. The boarding school section reminded me of The Country Girls. Two bookish memoirs I’d recommend as readalikes are Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby and Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan.
Skims (all: )
Actress by Anne Enright (2020)
The Green Road is among my most memorable reads of the past five years, so I was eagerly awaiting Enright’s new novel, which is on the Women’s Prize longlist. I read the first 30 pages and found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters. Norah is a novelist who, prompted by an interviewer, realizes the story she most needs to tell is her mother’s. Katherine O’Dell was “a great fake,” an actress who came to epitomize Irishness even though she was actually English. Her slow-burning backstory is punctuated by trauma and mental illness. “She was a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow,” Norah concludes. I could easily see this making the Women’s Prize shortlist and earning a Booker nomination as well. It’s the sort of book I’ll need to come back to some years down the line to fully appreciate.
Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
As Catholics, Cal McCluskey and his father are a rarity in their community and fear attacks on their home. Resistant to join his father in working at the local abattoir, Cal spends his days doing odd jobs and lurking around the public library – he has a crush on a married librarian named Marcella. Aimless and impressionable, he’s easily talked into acting as a driver for Crilly and Skeffington, the kind of associates who have gotten him branded as “Fenian scum.” The novella reflects on the futility of cycles of violence (“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Crilly says, to which Cal replies, “But it all seems so pointless”), but is definitely a period piece. Cal is not the most sympathetic of protagonists. I didn’t enjoy this as much as the two other books I’ve read by MacLaverty.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (1965)
Murphy and her bike “Roz” set out on an epic Fermor-like journey in the first six months of 1963. She covered 60 to 100 miles a day, facing sunburn, punctured tires and broken ribs. She was relieved she brought a gun: it came in handy for fending off wolves, deterring a would-be rapist, and preventing bike thieves. For some reason travel books are slow, painstaking reads for me. I never got into the flow of this one, and was troubled by snap judgments about groups of people – “I know instinctively the temper of a place, after being five minutes with the inhabitants. … the Afghans are, on balance, much dirtier in clothes, personal habits and dwellings than either the Turks or Persians.” Murphy does have a witty turn of phrase, though, e.g. “I suppose I’ll get used to it but at the moment I wouldn’t actually say that camel’s milk is my favourite beverage.”
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis (2017)
Toolis is a journalist and filmmaker from Dookinella, on an island off the coast of County Mayo. His father Sonny’s pancreatic cancer prompted him to return to the ancestral village and reflect on his own encounters with death. As a young man he had tuberculosis and stayed on a male chest ward with longtime smokers; despite a bone marrow donation, his older brother Bernard died from leukemia.
As a reporter during the Troubles and in Malawi and Gaza, Toolis often witnessed death, but at home in rural Ireland he saw a model for how it should be: accepted, and faced with the support of a whole community. People made a point of coming to see Sonny as he was dying. Keeping the body in the home and holding a wake are precious opportunities to be with the dead. Death is what’s coming for us all, so why not make its acquaintance? Toolis argues.
I’ve read so much around the topic that books like this don’t stand out anymore, and while I preferred the general talk of death to the family memoir bits, it also made very familiar points. At any rate, his description of his mother’s death is just how I want to go: “She quietly died of a heart attack with a cup of tea and a biscuit on a sunny May morning.”
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.
- Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.
- (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)
- Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.
- The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.
- Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.
- Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
29th: Other superlatives and some statistics
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading
These three books – two novels and a memoir – pay loving tribute to a particular nineteenth- or twentieth-century writer. In each case, the author incorporates passages of pastiche, moving beyond thematic similarity to make their language an additional homage.
Although I enjoyed the three books very much, they differ in terms of how familiar you should be with the source material before embarkation. So while they were all reads for me, I have added a note below each review to indicate the level of prior knowledge needed.
The River Capture by Mary Costello
Luke O’Brien has taken a long sabbatical from his teaching job in Dublin and is back living at the family farm beside the river in Waterford. Though only in his mid-thirties, he seems like a man of sorrows, often dwelling on the loss of parents, aunts and romantic relationships with both men and women. He takes quiet pleasure in food, the company of pets, and books, including his extensive collection on James Joyce, about whom he’d like to write a tome of his own. The novel’s very gentle crisis comes when Luke falls for Ruth and it emerges that her late father ruined his beloved Aunt Ellen’s reputation.
At this point a troubled Luke is driven into 100+ pages of sinuous contemplation, a bravura section of short fragments headed by questions. Rather like a catechism, it’s a playful way of organizing his thoughts and likely more than a little Joycean in approach – I’ve read Portrait of the Artist and Dubliners but not Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, so I feel less than able to comment on the literary ventriloquism, but I found this a pleasingly over-the-top stream-of-consciousness that ranges from the profound (“What fear suddenly assails him? The arrival of the noonday demon”) to the scatological (“At what point does he urinate? At approximately three-quarters of the way up the avenue”).
While this doesn’t quite match Costello’s near-perfect novella, Academy Street, it’s an impressive experiment in voice and style, and the treatment of Luke’s bisexuality struck me as sensitive – an apt metaphorical manifestation of the novel’s focus on fluidity. (See also Susan’s excellent review.)
Why Joyce? “integrity … commitment to the quotidian … refusal to take conventions for granted”
Familiarity required: Moderate
Also recommended: The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy
Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel by a literary editor. The whole thing is a book within a book – fiction being written by Kate, an academic at London’s Queen Elizabeth College who’s preparing for two conferences on Eliot and a new co-taught course on life writing at the same time as she completes her novel, which blends biographical information and imagined scenes.
1857: Eliot is living with George Henry Lewes, her common-law husband, and working on Adam Bede, which becomes a runaway success, not least because of speculation about its anonymous author. 1880: The great author’s death leaves behind a mentally unstable widower 20 years her junior, John Walter Cross, once such a close family friend that she and Lewes called him “Nephew.”
Between these points are intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. Her estrangement from her dear brother (the model for Tom in The Mill on the Floss) is a plangent refrain, while interactions with female friends who have accepted the norms of marriage and motherhood reveal just how transgressive her life is perceived to be.
In the historical sections O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably, yet avoids the convoluted syntax that can make Eliot challenging. I might have liked a bit more of the contemporary story line, in which Kate and an alluring colleague make their way to Venice (the site of Eliot’s legendarily disastrous honeymoon trip with Cross), but by making this a minor thread O’Shaughnessy ensures that the spotlight remains on Eliot throughout.
Highlights: A cameo appearance by Henry James; a surprisingly sexy passage in which Cross and Eliot read Dante aloud to each other and share their first kiss.
Why Eliot? “As an artist, this was her task, to move the reader to see people in the round.”
Familiarity required: Low
Also recommended: 142 Strand by Rosemary Ashton, Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker, and My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
With thanks to Scribe UK for the free copy for review.
All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth
Smyth first read To the Lighthouse in Christmas 2001, during her junior year abroad at Oxford. Shortly thereafter her father had surgery in Boston to remove his bladder, one of many operations he’d had during a decade battling cancer. But even this new health scare wasn’t enough to keep him from returning to his habitual three bottles of wine a day. Woolf was there for Smyth during this crisis and all the time leading up to her father’s death, with Lighthouse and Woolf’s own life reflecting Smyth’s experience in unanticipated ways. The Smyths’ Rhode Island beach house, for instance, was reminiscent of the Stephens’ home in Cornwall. Woolf’s mother’s death was an end to the summer visits, and to her childhood; Lighthouse would become her elegy to those bygone days.
Often a short passage by or about Woolf is enough to launch Smyth back into her memories. As an only child, she envied the busy family life of the Ramsays in Lighthouse. She delves into the mystery of her parents’ marriage and her father’s faltering architecture career. She also undertakes Woolf tourism, including the Cornwall cottage, Knole, Charleston and Monk’s House (where Woolf wrote most of Lighthouse). Her writing is dreamy, mingling past and present as she muses on time and grief. The passages of Woolf pastiche are obvious but short enough not to overstay their welcome; as in the Costello, they tend to feature water imagery. It’s a most unusual book in the conception, but for Woolf fans especially, it works. However, I wished I had read Lighthouse more recently than 16.5 years ago – it’s one to reread.
Why Woolf? “I think it’s Woolf’s mastery of moments like these—moments that hold up a mirror to our private tumult while also revealing how much we as humans share—that most draws me to her.”
Undergraduate wisdom: “Woolf’s technique: taking a very complex (usually female) character and using her mind as an emblem of all minds” [copied from notes I took during a lecture on To the Lighthouse in my Modern Wasteland course, sophomore year of college]
Familiarity required: High
Also recommended: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, and Adeline by Norah Vincent
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
I happened to read two books with the word moon in their titles within a couple of weeks in September, which prompted me to ransack my shelves and find two more. While these four are in completely different genres – one women’s fiction, one poetry, one memoir and one Booker-winning literary novel – they are all by women (naturally more in touch with the moon?) and all worth reading. In the weeks that I was undertaking this mini reading project, I couldn’t get Krista Detor’s song “All to Do with the Moon” out of my head (on this video, a live recording of the entire “Night Light” suite of three songs, it starts at about 6:15). She’s one of our favorite singer-songwriters, though, so this was no problem.
The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg (1996)
This is my second contemporary novel from Berg. I find her work effortlessly readable. She’s comparable to those other Elizabeths, McCracken and Strout, but also to Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler. This one reminded me most of Tyler’s Ladder of Years in that both are about a middle-aged woman who takes a break from her marriage to figure out what she wants from life. Nan, “a fifty-year-old runaway,” takes off from her suburban Boston home and drives west, stopping at motels and cabins, eating at diners, and meeting the locals; eventually she gets as far as South Dakota. Her narration is in the form of letters to her husband, Martin, alternated with italicized passages from her journal. She reflects on everything that has made up her life – her upbringing, her marriage and other sexual encounters, raising her daughter, Ruthie – as well as on the small-town folk she meets in Iowa and Minnesota. The moon is a symbol of the femininity Nan fears she’s losing through menopause and hopes to reclaim on this journey.
The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch (2017)
This was a lucky find in the clearance section at Blackwell’s on my Oxford day with Annabel. It’s a beautifully produced book from Autumn House, the small Pittsburgh press that released my favorite poetic work of last year: The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. This was Bloch’s sixth and final book of poetry, published in the year of her death. She writes in the awareness that this cancer will be her end and doesn’t gloss over losses of function and dignity, but still finds delight in life through her family, writing and Jewish rituals: “Never forget / you were put on earth to gather joy // with melancholy hands” (from “Instructions for the Bridegroom”). A favorite poem was “The Will,” in which she imagines how the physical and intangible relics of her life will be distributed (“My plans and projects I hereby bequeath to the air / of which they were conceived. … Let the doctors pack up my heart / and keep it humming for the right customer.”).
Off-topic note: This was typeset in Mrs Eaves, which may well be one of my favorite fonts.
To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn (2018)
My special interest in women’s religious memoirs led me to list this among my most anticipated titles of 2018. I had it on my wish list for quite a while and then, when I saw it available for a bargain price online, snapped it up for myself. Lisa Kohn grew up in the New York City environs, the child of hippie parents she called Mimi and Danny rather than Mom and Dad. After their parents divorced, she and her brother lived in New Jersey with their mother and went into the City to visit their father, who was very lax about things like drugs. By the time Kohn was 10, her mother had gotten caught up in Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.
I knew next to nothing about the “Moonies,” so I found it fascinating to learn about this cult led by a South Korean reverend who let it be assumed that he was the new incarnation of Jesus Christ and the flourishing of his family on Earth would usher in God’s Kingdom. The Church became Kohn’s whole life until internal questioning set in during high school, and by the time she went to college she was adrift and into drugs instead. The book recreates scenes and dialogue well, but I found myself losing interest once the cult itself stopped being the main focus.
Readalikes: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)
Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world – or at least, the world as she’s seen it. She’s been an author of popular history books (one of which, on Mexico, was made into a film), but she’s also been a daughter, a sister, a lover and a mother. As the book shifts between the first person and the third person, the present and the past, we learn volumes about Claudia and how her memory has preserved the layers of her personal history. There are a couple of big reveals, about her relationship with her brother Gordon and her time as a Second World War correspondent in Egypt, but what’s more impressive than these plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.
I made the fine choice to start reading this on holiday at the Jurassic coast in Dorset, which was fitting because Claudia grew up in Dorset and uses ammonites and rock strata as recurring metaphors. This won a well-deserved Booker Prize and is the best of the five Lively books I’ve read. I wasn’t particularly taken with the first couple I read by her, so I’m glad I tried again this year (with Heat Wave and then this). It’s just a shame that the copy I found in the free bookshop where I volunteer has such a dreadfully inappropriate cover, making it look like contemporary chick lit rather than serious literature.
Some favorite lines:
“Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested.”
“In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”
“Once it is all written down we know what really happened.”
A note on the title: From the context, it seems that a moon tiger was a special inflammatory device, maybe like a citronella candle, used to repel mosquitoes and other insects.
Other ‘Moon’ books I have happened to review:
Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
For this second half of the year I chose just 15 of the new releases I was most excited about. Limiting myself in that way has been helpful for focusing the mind: I’ve already read six of my most anticipated books, I’m currently reading another, and I have several more awaiting me. Had I chosen 30 or more titles, I would likely be feeling overwhelmed by now, but as it is I have a good chance of actually getting to all these books before the end of the year. These five September releases, while very different – their topics range from cancer and dead bodies to archaeological digs and family inheritance – all lived up to my expectations:
The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer
(Coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux [USA] on the 17th and Allen Lane [UK] on October 3rd)
In 2014, Boyer, then a 41-year-old poet and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute (and a single mother) was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The book’s subtitle gives you clues to the sort of practical and emotional territory that’s covered here. Although she survived this highly aggressive cancer, she was not unscathed: the chemotherapy she had is so toxic it leads to lasting nerve damage and a brain fog that hasn’t completely lifted.
All the more impressive, then, that Boyer has been able to put together this ferociously intellectual response to American cancer culture. Her frame of reference ranges from ancient Greece – Aelius Aristides, who lived in a temple, hoping the gods would reveal the cure to his wasting illness via dreams, becomes an offbeat hero for her – to recent breast cancer vloggers. She is scathing on vapid pink-ribbon cheerleading that doesn’t substantially improve breast cancer patients’ lives, and on profit-making healthcare schemes that inevitably discriminate against poor women of color and send people home from the hospital within a day or two of a double mastectomy. Through her own experience, she reflects on the pressure women are under to be brave, to be optimistic, to go to work as normal, and to look as beautiful as ever when they are in excruciating pain and beyond exhaustion.
Impossible to avoid comparisons to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, but this book has a personal power I don’t remember finding in Sontag’s more detached, academic-level work. Boyer sees herself as one in a long lineage of women writing about their cancer – from Fanny Burney to Audre Lorde – and probes the limits of language when describing pain. I was reminded of another terrific, adjacent book from this year, Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, especially where Boyer describes her imagined 10-part pain scale (Gleeson has a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index).
I could quote excellent passages all day, but here are a few that stood out to me:
“People with breast cancer are supposed to be ourselves as we were before, but also better and stronger and at the same time heart-wrenchingly worse. We are supposed to keep our unhappiness to ourselves but donate our courage to everyone.”
“The moral failure of breast cancer is not in the people who die: it is in the world that makes them sick, bankrupts them for a cure that also makes them sick, then blames them for their own deaths.”
“If suffering is like a poem, I want mine to be lurid, righteous, and goth.”
My thanks to FSG for the proof copy for review.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty
(Coming from W.W. Norton [USA] on the 10th and W&N [UK] on the 19th)
This is the third book by the millennial mortician, and I’ve taken perverse glee in reading them all. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes explains cremation and combats misconceptions about death; From Here to Eternity surveys death rituals from around the world. This new book seems to be aimed at (morbid) children, but for me it was more like one of those New Scientist books (Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?) or Why Do Men Have Nipples?
Some of the questions are more serious than others, but with her usual punning wit and pop culture references Doughty gives biologically sound answers to them all. For instance, she explains what might happen to a corpse in space, why the hair and fingernails of a cadaver appear to keep growing, and why the quantity of ashes from a cremation is about the same no matter the dead person’s girth (all the fat burns away; what would make your ashes weigh more is being taller and thus having longer bones). I was most interested in the chapter on why conjoined twins generally die at roughly the same time.
Doughty also discusses laws relating to the dead, such as “abuse of corpse” regulations and whether or not deaths at a property have to be reported to potential buyers (it depends on what state or country you live in); and what happens in countries that are literally running out of space for burials. In highly population-dense places like Singapore, but also in countries such as Germany, one is considered to ‘rent’ grave space, which is then recycled after 15 years and the previous set of remains cremated. Or graves might get stacked vertically.
This is good fun, and features lots of cartoonishly gruesome black-and-white illustrations by Dianné Ruz. If you’ve got a particularly curious niece or nephew who might appreciate a dark sense of humor, this would make a good Christmas gift for one who is an older child or young teen.
My thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.
Bloomland by John Englehardt
(Coming from Dzanc Books [USA only] on the 10th)
“you wonder if the scariest thing about all this is not that life can’t return to normal, but that it already has”
Especially after Gilroy and El Paso, I wasn’t sure I’d have the heart to pick up Bloomland, a novel about a mass shooting at (fictional) Ozarka University, Arkansas. But I’m very glad I did. Crucially, Englehardt’s debut doesn’t a) make easy assignments of guilt, b) resort to lurid scenes for shock value, or c) employ the cut-and-dried language of cause and effect. It’s a subtle and finely crafted piece of literary fiction. The second-person narration is an effective means of drawing the reader into the action, and inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, an Ozarka student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter.
Both Rose and Eli lost their mothers when they were 11 years old. Six years before starting a poultry science course at Ozarka, Rose was caught up in a tornado that killed her grandmother and fractured her skull. The fact that her upbringing was even more traumatic than Eli’s is, I think, meant to discredit the lazy argument that dysfunctional families produce killers. In his early days at university we see Eli befriending a drug dealer named Gordon, whose hunting rifle he soups up to use in the shooting at the campus library in finals week. Englehardt also tests out another couple of predictors of violence: cruelty towards animals (au contraire, Eli can’t stand more than one day of debeaking chickens at a poultry factory and even takes one home as a pet) and violent, video-game-fueled fantasies (the story he writes for creative writing class is average for a teenage male so doesn’t raise any alarm bells).
Gradually we learn that there is an “I” behind this triple-stranded narrative: Dr. Steven Bressinger, an Ozarka creative writing professor. Although Rose, Eddie and Eli are all fully realized characters, we are also left to wonder how this Bressinger is able to access their memories and emotions. To what extent can he really put himself into their situations? And how much of the rest is made up? But then, that’s what the novelist does anyway: imagine what it’s like to be inside a character’s experience, especially when they’ve made unimaginable decisions.
So this novel within a novel thoroughly convinced me, especially as it moves into the future to examine how the campus and the wider community address issues of guilt and vengeance. Its timeliness is obvious, and Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, even when it’s about the homogeneity of the American suburb: e.g., “You start driving down MLK, past the mass grave of dollar stores, under the even clouds converging like one stoic slab of ice.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
(Coming from Sort Of Books [UK] on the 19th and Penguin Books [USA] on the 24th)
I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too.
The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quinhagak, Alaska, a village that’s about the farthest you can go before crossing the Bering Sea into Russia, by her fascination with the whaling artifacts found along the UK’s east coast. Here she helped out on a summer archaeological dig and learned about the language and culture of the Yup’ik people. Alarmingly, the ground here should have been frozen most of the way to the surface, forcing the crew to wear thermals; instead, the ice was a half-meter down, and Jamie found that she never needed her cold-weather gear.
On Westray, Orkney (hey, I’ve been there!), there was also evidence of environmental degradation in the form of rapid erosion. This Neolithic site, comparable to the better-known Skara Brae, leads Jamie to think about deep time and whether we’re actually much better off than people in the Bronze Age were. Prehistory fits the zeitgeist, as seen in two entries from the recent Wainwright Prize shortlist: Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis.
A cancer biopsy coincides with a dream memory of being bitten by a Tibetan dog, prompting Jamie to get out her notebook from a trip to China/Tibet some 30 years ago. Xiahe was technically in China but ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and so the best they could manage at that time since Tibet was closed to foreigners. There’s an amazing amount of detail in this essay given how much time has passed, but her photos as well as her notebook must have helped with the reconstruction.
The depth and engagement of the long essays are admirable, yet I often connected more with the few-page pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Jamie has made the interesting choice of delivering a lot of the memoir fragments in the second person. My favorite piece of all is “Elders,” which in just five pages charts her father’s decline and death and marks her own passage into unknown territory: grown children and no parents; what might her life look like now?
There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition:
What are you doing here anyway, in the woods? … You wanted to think about all the horror. The everyday news … No, not to think about it exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing … You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.
My thanks to Sort Of Books for the free copy for review.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
(Coming from Bloomsbury [UK] and Harper [USA] on the 24th)
Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. Their mother left when Danny was little, so his older sister played a maternal role, too. And when their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel (or Cinderella and her little brother): cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeeks’ cigarette empire.
It’s interesting to see Patchett take on a male perspective in this novel; she does it utterly convincingly. I also loved the medical threads running through: Maeve is diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and Danny spends many years in medical training even though his only ambition is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a property developer. There was a stretch in the middle of the book – something like 46% to 58% – when I was really bored with Danny’s dithering (‘but I don’t want to be a doctor … but I don’t want to marry Celeste’), and the chronology is unnecessarily complicated by flashbacks, though this is, I think, meant to convey Danny’s desultory composition of his memoirs.
In the end I didn’t like this quite as much as Commonwealth, but it’s a memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. As the decades pass you see how what happened to Maeve and Danny has been turned into myth: a story they repeat to themselves about how they were usurped, until this narrative has more power than the reality. Readers, meanwhile, are invited to question the people and places we base our security on, and to imagine what it would mean to forgive and forget and start living in a different way.
Patchett is always so good on the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head. The Goldfinch comes to mind as a readalike – not least because of the significance of a piece of art: the cover depicts a painting made of Maeve when she was 10 – as well as Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.
I read an electronic proof copy via Edelweiss.
Have you read any September releases that you would recommend? Which of these tempt you?
Two recent books about our flawed bodies and the ultimate pointlessness of trying to control them…
Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control by Barbara Ehrenreich
A decade ago, Barbara Ehrenreich discovered a startling paradox through a Scientific American article: the immune system assists the growth and spread of tumors, including in breast cancer, which she had in 2000. It was an epiphany for her, confirming that no matter how hard we try with diet, exercise and early diagnosis, there’s only so much we can do to preserve our health; “not everything is potentially within our control, not even our own bodies and minds.” I love Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die (alternate title: Bright-Sided), which is what I call an anti-self-help book refuting the supposed health benefits of positive thinking. In that book I felt like her skeptical approach was fully warranted, and I could sympathize with her frustration – nay, outrage – when people tried to suggest she’d attracted her cancer and limited her chances of survival through her pessimism.
However, Natural Causes is so relentlessly negative and so selective in the evidence it provides that, even though it’s sure to be considered for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist, I would be unlikely to recommend it. In the first chapter, “Midlife Revolt,” which has been excerpted at Literary Hub and is worth reading, Ehrenreich writes of her decision to give up routine medical screening after a false positive mammogram caused undue stress. She decided once she passed 70 she was old enough to die without accepting a “medicalized life.” Moreover, she believes there’s an epidemic of “overdiagnosis,” especially in the USA, where there can be a profit motive behind testing. (This is certainly not the case in the UK, where the NHS doesn’t pester me about getting cervical smear tests to line any pockets; no, it’s about saving taxpayers money by catching cancer early and thus minimizing treatment costs.)
Ehrenreich goes on to argue that many medical procedures are simply rituals to establish patient trust, that cancer screening is invasive and ineffective, that there is little evidence that meditation does any good, and that fitness has become a collective obsession that probably doesn’t help us live any longer. It’s uncomfortable to hear her dismiss early detection techniques as worthless; no one whose doctor found cancer in the early stages would agree. The author also seems unwilling to confront her own personal prejudices (e.g. against yoga).
Although she uses plenty of statistics to back up her points, these usually come from newspapers and websites rather than peer-reviewed journals; only in two chapters about how macrophages ‘betray’ the body by abetting cancer does she consult the scientific literature, in keeping with her PhD in cellular immunology. Her most bizarre example of how our bodies aren’t evolutionarily fit for purpose is copious menstruation. Overall, the book is a strange mixture of hard science, social science, and, in later chapters, philosophy, as Ehrenreich asks about the nature of the self and the soul and what survives of us after death. As usual, her work is very readable, but this doesn’t match up to many other mind/body books I’ve read.
“The only cure for bad science is more science, which has to include both statistical analysis and some recognition that the patient is not ‘just a statistic,’ but a conscious, intelligent agent, just as the doctor is.”
“The objection raised over and over to any proposed expansion of health insurance was, in so many words: Why should I contribute to the care of those degenerates who choose to smoke and eat cheeseburgers? … we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fiber? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?”
Natural Causes was published in the UK by Granta on April 12th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents
Lents is a biology professor at John Jay College, City University of New York, and in this, his second book, he explores the ways in which the human body is flawed. These errors come in three categories: adaptations to the way the world was for early humans (to take advantage of once-scarce nutrients, we gain weight quickly – but lose it only with difficulty); incomplete adaptations (our knees are still not fit for upright walking); and the basic limitations of our evolution (inefficient systems such as the throat handling both breath and food, and the recurrent laryngeal nerve being three times longer than necessary because it loops around the aorta). Consider that myopia rates are 30% or higher, the retina faces backward, sinuses drain upwards, there are 100+ autoimmune diseases, we have redundant bones in our wrist and ankle, and we can’t produce most of the vitamins we need. Put simply, we’re not a designer’s ideal. And yet this all makes a lot of sense for an evolved species.
My favorite chapter was on the inefficiencies of human reproduction compared to that of other mammals. Infertility and miscarriage rates are notably high, and gestation is shorter than it really needs to be: because otherwise their heads would get too big to pass through the birth canal, all babies are effectively born premature, so are helpless for much longer than other newborn mammals. I also especially liked the short section on cancer, which would eventually get us all if we only lived long enough. As it is, “evolution has struck an uneasy balance with cancer. Mutations cause cancer, which kills individuals, but it also brings diversity and innovation, which is good for the population.”
Lents writes in a good conversational style and usually avoids oversimplifying the science. In places his book reminded me of Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong and Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine. It’s a wry and gentle treatment of human weakness; the content never turns depressing or bitter. Recommended for all curious readers of popular science.
“While lithopedions [“stone babies”] and abdominal pregnancies are quite rare, they are also 100 percent the result of poor design. Any reasonable plumber would have attached the fallopian tube to the ovary, thereby preventing tragic and often fatal mishaps like these.”
“to call our immune system perfectly designed would be equally inaccurate. There are millions of people who once happily walked this planet only to meet their demise because their bodies simply self-sabotaged. When bodies fight themselves, there can be no winner.”
Human Errors was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.