Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined.
What if Death wasn’t the male Grim Reaper stereotype? What if, instead, she was a poor black woman – a bag lady on a bus, or a hospital cleaner? In this playful and lilting story, we learn of Mrs Death’s work via her unwitting medium, Wolf Willeford, who one Christmas Eve goes walking in London’s Brick Lane area and buys an irresistible desk that reveals flashes of historical deaths. Once Mrs Death’s desk (and resentful at not being a piano), it now transmits her stories to Wolf, giving a whole new meaning to the term ghost writer. Wolf compiles and edits her memoirs, which take the form of diary entries, poems, and songs.
It’s never been more stressful to be Death, what with civil war in Syria, school shootings in the USA, and refugees drowning off the coast of France. But although the book’s frame of reference is up to the minute, wrongful deaths are nothing new, so occasional vignettes dramatize untimely demises – especially of black women – across the centuries: from the days of slavery to Jack the Ripper to police custody a few years ago. There are so many ways to die:
really nearly took that other plane on 9/11
had a coconut fall on your head
saw your village being bombed
slipped taking a selfie by the Grand Canyon
had a fight with an alligator
got stranded in a fierce and fast-moving bushfire
Speaking of fire, and of the title, Wolf (biracial, nonbinary, and possibly bipolar) is here to narrate only because Mrs Death missed one. Their mum died in a house fire. Wolf should have died that day, too, but heard a voice saying “Wake up, Wolf … Can you smell smoke?” Were they spared deliberately, or did Mrs Death make a mistake? (After all, we learn that when a patient briefly wakes up on the operating table before dying for good, it’s because Mrs Death’s printer got jammed.)
Where I think the novel really succeeds is in balancing its two levels: the cosmic, in which Life and Death are sisters and Time is Death’s lover in a sort of creation myth; and the personal, in which Wolf’s family tree, printed at the end, is an appalling litany of accidental deaths and executions. It’s easy to see why Wolf is so traumatized, but Mrs Death, ironically, reminds him that, despite all of the world’s fallen heroes and ongoing crises, there is still such beauty to be found in life.
All the warmth and all the joy is boiled in a soup of memory, we stir the good stuff from the bottom of the pot and hold the ladle up, drink, we say, look at all the good chunks of goodness, take in your share of good times, good music, good books, good food, good laughter, good people, be grateful for the good stuff, life and death, we say, drink.
There were a few spots where I thought the content repetitive and wondered if the miscellany format distracted from the narrative, but overall the book more than lives up to its fantastic cover, title, and premise. And with the pandemic’s global death toll rising daily, it could hardly be more relevant.
Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read: this is the first entry on my Best of 2021 shelf.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow I’ll review a few more of January’s fiction releases, followed by nonfiction on Saturday.
Four July–August releases: Scottish nature writing, the quirky story of a family taxidermy business in Florida, a dual-timeline novel set at an unusual dictionary’s headquarters, and a critical and personal response to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie
This nature writing anthology of essays, poems and visual art drew me because of contributor names like GP Gavin Francis (reviewed: Shapeshifters), Amy Liptrot (the Wainwright Prize-winning memoir The Outrun), singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, and Shetland chronicler Malachy Tallack (reviewed: The Un-Discovered Islands and The Valley at the Centre of the World), not to mention editor Kathleen Jamie. Archaeology and folk music evoke the past, while climate change scenarios inject a sense of a menacing future. Seabirds circle and coastal and island scenery recurs. Entries from Alec Finlay’s “A Place-Aware Dictionary” disguise political points under tongue-in-cheek language, as in a definition of foraging: “Later sometimes referred to as the Brexit Diet.” The (sub)urban could be more evident, and I didn’t need two bouts of red deer sex, but there’s still a nice mix of tones and approaches here.
Six best pieces (out of 24): Chris Powici on wind turbines and red kites at the Braes of Doune; Jacqueline Bain on how reduced mobility allows her to observe wasps closely; Jim Crumley on sea eagle reintroductions and the ancient sky burials that took place at the Tomb of the Eagles; Jen Hadfield on foraging for whelks at the ocean’s edge, in a run-on hybrid narrative; Sally Huband on how persecution of ravens and of women (still not allowed to take part in Up Helly Aa festivities) continues on Shetland; and Liptrot on how wild swimming prepared her for childbirth and helped her to recover a sense of herself separate from her baby. And if I had to pick just one, the Huband – so brave and righteously angry.
“Compromises need to be made. An overlap between the wild and the human has to be negotiated and managed. … So let’s play merry hell with the distinction between what counts as wild and what counts as human, between what’s condemned as a visual obscenity and what’s seen as a marvel of the age. Let’s mess up the boundaries and get a new measure of ourselves as a species.” (Powici)
inspiration to get out walking again: “Don’t wait / thinking you’ve seen it all already … don’t wait thinking you need better boots / or a waterproof that’ll keep out the rain. / It won’t. Don’t wait.” (“Water of Ae” by Em Strang)
My thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
“We couldn’t ever leave roadkill behind. Something inside us always made us stop to pick up dead things.”
After her father’s suicide, Jessa-Lynn Morton takes over the family taxidermy business in central Florida. Despite her excessive drinking and grief over both her father and her best friend and long-time on-and-off girlfriend (also, inconveniently, her brother’s wife) Brynn, who recently took off, she’s just about holding it together. That is, until 1) her mother takes to composing interspecies orgies and S&M scenes in the shop window and 2) her niece and nephew, Lolee and Bastien, start bringing in specimens for taxidermy that they haven’t exactly obtained legally. Gallery owner Lucinda Rex takes an interest in her mother’s ‘art’ and is soon a new romantic interest for Jessa. But the entire family is going to have to face its issues before her professional and love life can be restored.
This debut novel’s title, cover and premise were utterly irresistible to me, and though I loved the humid Florida setting, it was all a bit too much. At 200 pages this could have been a razor-sharp new favorite, but instead there was a lot of sag in its 350+ pages. Alternating chapters based around mounting particular animals give glimpses into the family’s past but mostly have Jessa mooning over Brynn. Her emotional journey starts to feel belabored; it’s as if an editor tried to rein in Arnett’s campy glee at the dysfunctional family’s breakdown and made her add in some amateur psychoanalysis, and for me this diluted the quirky joy.
Skinning and sex scenes are equally explicit here. This never bothered me, but it should go without saying that it is not a book for the squeamish. It’s when sex and taxidermy mix that things get a little icky, as in her mother’s X-rated tableaux and a line like “Often I found myself comparing the limber body of a deer with the long line of [Lucinda’s] legs or the strong cord of her neck.” Believe it or not, this is not the first queer taxidermy novel I’ve read. The other one, English Animals by Laura Kaye, was better. I’d wanted another Swamplandia! but got something closer to Black Light instead.
My thanks to Corsair for the free copy for review.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
Mallory is five years into an internship at Swansby House, the London headquarters of Swansby’s dictionary. The dictionary is known for being unfinished – too many of its lexicographers left for WWI and never returned – and for having made-up words. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, the butt of jokes among his colleagues, started composing mountweazels (fake entries) and inserting them into the dictionary. In the contemporary story line, Mallory’s job is to remove the mountweazels as the dictionary is prepared for digitization. But her attention is distracted by anonymous bomb threats and by lingering shame about her sexuality – Mallory thinks she’s “out enough,” but her girlfriend Pip begs to differ.
Chapters are headed with vocabulary words running from A to Z, and alternate between Mallory’s first-person narration and a third-person account of Winceworth’s misadventures at the turn of the twentieth century. In any book with this kind of structure I seem to prefer the contemporary strand and itch to get back to it, though there is a quite astounding scene in which Winceworth intervenes to help a choking pelican. Events at Swansby House resonate and mirror each other across the dozen decades, with both main characters emerging with a new sense of purpose after an epiphany that life is about more than work. Though silly in places, this has a winning love of words and characters you’ll care about.
A favorite made-up word: “Mammonsomniate: to dream that money might make anything possible.”
Readalikes: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony and Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
My thanks to William Heinemann for the proof copy for review.
Looking Was Not Enough: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex by Irena Yamboliev
When I worked in a university library and read Middlesex during quiet evenings on the circulation desk in 2009, a colleague asked me, “Is that about the London borough?” My reply: “Er, no, it’s about a hermaphrodite.” That’s an off-putting, clinical sort of word, but it does appear in the first paragraph of this family saga with a difference, after the mythological intensity and medical necessity implied by the killer opening line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Cal, born Calliope but now living as a man and working in the Foreign Service, recounts three generations of family history, from Greece to Detroit to Berlin. “Because … their parents were dead and their village destroyed, because no one in Smyrna knew who they were,” brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona became lovers and got married on the boat over to America. They were his grandparents. Add to that his parents’ first-cousin marriage and you see how inbreeding played genetic havoc and made way for Callie/Cal.
I intended to reread Middlesex, which I consider one of my all-time favorite books, but only made it through 60 pages on this occasion. Still, Yamboliev, a Bulgarian-American who teaches at Stanford, reminded me of everything I love about it: the medical theme, the exploration of selfhood, the playful recreation of the past. Drawing parallels with her own family’s move to America, she ponders the disconnection from the home country and the creation of a new life story. “To tell ourselves where we come from—to narrate—is to find a pattern retroactively.” She also looks at literary precursors like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Herculine Barbin’s memoir, and Balzac’s and Barthes’s writings on a castrato. “Does transformation make the self discontinuous?” is one of her central questions, and she likens Cal’s situation to that of trans men who have to train themselves to speak, dress and act in a convincingly masculine way.
This is part of Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series; all its monographs do a wonderful job of blending literary criticism, enthusiastic appreciation, and autobiographical reflection as life dovetails with (re)reading. I’ve previously reviewed the Fiction Advocate books on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post, and the ones on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in this one.
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It’s my third year participating in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. Two years ago I read only books by women; last year I did an animal theme. This year, my 20 books will all tie into a food and drink theme. This includes recognizable foodie lit, memoirs and travel books that have a food element (such as Dave Gorman seeking out non-chain restaurants in America Unchained and Alice Steinbach taking French cooking lessons in Educating Alice), and fiction or nonfiction works that just happen to have a food word in the title. To avoid being grisly, I’ll try not to include any animal books left over from last year!
I have around 30 books to choose from, including these slightly cheaty selections whose authors’ names bring food to mind.
The one constant in my three summers’ selections is that all the books have to be from my own shelves – it’s my way of trying to tackle my hundreds-strong physical TBR. I also have a few classics and two rereads (Dunn and Kingsolver) in the mix here, which would contribute to other ongoing reading goals.
I’m kicking off #20BooksofSummer20 with a quick win, only 85 pages long and read in a single sitting this morning. It was a great start to the project and had my mouth watering for elevenses two hours early…
Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
This lovely pamphlet of food-themed essays arose from a blog Powles kept while in Shanghai on a one-year scholarship to learn Mandarin. She’d lived in the city as a teen, attending an international high school, so it was somewhat familiar – yet she struggled with homesickness. From one winter to another, she explores the city’s culinary offerings and muses on the ways in which food is bound up with her memories of people and places.
As a child in a mixed-race household in New Zealand, she only knew food words in her Malaysian Chinese mother’s native languages. “My earliest childhood impressions are ones where I am just about to eat something,” she writes. That something might have been Western or Asian food – they coexist in the book (most delightfully on a long-distance train ride she takes: you can buy noodles and dried chicken feet, but also Oreos and Pringles).
As a student in Shanghai, she has dumplings and soup for lunch almost every day. She could live off of spring onion oil noodles and pineapple buns (named for their cross-hatched top rather than their flavour). Messy foods, greasy foods, comfort foods – “It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled.” She and her classmates know that their time here is limited, and they’re going to make the most of these flavours you can’t find every day.
Two sets of cooking lessons add dishes like sticky rice dumplings and stir-fried aubergines to her repertoire. She learns about the traditional foods associated with Chinese festivals, and about the country’s north/south divides: wheat noodles versus rice and thick-skinned dumplings versus thin ones. Street food and snacks abound, including savoury and sweet buns, filled pancakes, tofu bowls and mooncakes.
This is a book about how food can help you be at home, despite loneliness or a language barrier: “In any city anywhere, if there’s a Chinatown I’ll feel at home,” Powles concludes. I love how she uses the senses – not just taste, but also smell and sight – to recreate important places in her life. A fresh banana fritter eaten at her grandparents’ home in Borneo brings it all back, with the senses mingling synaesthetically: “I taste tropical heat. I can taste the slow hours spent in the back garden beneath the mango tree … I taste the fierce sun on my neck”.
Readalikes: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop & Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
Note: Last year Nina Mingya Powles won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, earning a publishing contract with Canongate for a nature/travel memoir that will be released in August 2021. I’m looking forward to it already.
Tiny Moons was published on February 27th. My thanks to Emma Dai’an Wright of The Emma Press, a small press based in Birmingham, UK, for the free copy for review. (Emma also illustrated the book!)
Are you joining in the summer reading challenge? What’s the first book on the docket?
Do you spy any favorites on my piles? Which ones should I be sure to read?
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 a “Modern Wasteland” course during my 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.
Last month I picked out this exchange from East of Eden by John Steinbeck:
“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”
“They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”
There’s something about that mixture of darkness and humor, isn’t there? I also find that Irish art (music as well as literature) has a lot of heart. I only read two Ireland-related historical novels this month, but they both have that soulful blend of light and somber. Both:
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (2019)
In the autumn of 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Problem is, this missing girl is no ordinary child, and collectors of medical curiosities and circus masters alike are interested in acquiring her.
In its early chapters this delightful Victorian pastiche reminded me of a cross between Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and that comparison played out pretty well in the remainder. Kidd paints a convincingly gritty picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks: when Bridie first arrived in London from Dublin, she worked as an assistant to a resurrectionist; her maid is a 7-foot-tall bearded lady; and her would-be love interest, if only death didn’t separate them, is the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer.
Medicine (surgery – before and after anesthesia) and mythology (mermaids and selkies) are intriguing subplots woven through, such that this is likely to appeal to fans of The Way of All Flesh and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Kidd’s prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people (but also in her more expansive musings on the dirty, bustling city): “a joyless string of a woman, thin and pristine with a halibut pout,” “In Dr Prudhoe’s countenance, refinement meets rogue,” and “People are no more than punctuation from above.”
I’ll definitely go back and read Kidd’s two previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. I didn’t even realize she was Irish, so I’m grateful to Cathy for making me aware of that in her preview of upcoming Irish fiction. [Trigger warnings: violence against women and animals.] (Out from Canongate on April 4th.)
Away by Jane Urquhart (1993)
I was enraptured from the first line: “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” – starting with Mary, who falls in love with a sailor who washes up on the Irish coast in the 1840s amid the cabbages, silver teapots and whiskey barrels of a shipwreck and dies in her arms. Due to her continued communion with the dead man, people speak of her being “away with the fairies,” even after she marries the local schoolteacher, Brian O’Malley.
With their young son, Liam, they join the first wave of emigration to Canada during the Potato Famine, funded by their landlords, the Sedgewick brothers of Puffin Court (amateur naturalist Osbert and poet Granville). No sooner have the O’Malleys settled and had their second child, Eileen, than Mary disappears. As she grows, Eileen takes after her mother, mystically attuned to portents and prone to flightiness, while Liam is a happily rooted Great Lakes farmer. Like Mary, Eileen has her own forbidden romance, with a political revolutionary who dances like a dream.
I’ve been underwhelmed by other Urquhart novels, Sanctuary Line and The Whirlpool, but here she gets it just right, wrapping her unfailingly gorgeous language around an absorbing plot – which is what I felt was lacking in the others. The Ireland and Canada settings are equally strong, and the spirit of Ireland – the people, the stories, the folk music – is kept alive abroad. I recommend this to readers of historical fiction by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Hannah Kent.
Some favorite lines:
Osbert says of Mary: “There’s this light in her, you see, and it must not be put out.”
“When summer was finished the family was visited by a series of overstated seasons. In September, they awakened after night frosts to a woods awash with floating gold leaves and a sky frantic with migrating birds – sometimes so great in number that they covered completely with their shadows the acre of light and air that Brian had managed to create.”
“There are five hundred and forty different kinds of weather out there, and I respect every one of them. White squalls, green fogs, black ice, and the dreaded yellow cyclone, just to mention a few.”
Did you manage to read any Irish literature this month?
After going to Wigtown in April, I never expected I’d be back in Scotland this year. This was a fairly last-minute trip we booked so that my husband could attend a short rewilding workshop for PhD students. They all met up in Edinburgh and proceeded by bus into the Cairngorms to see sites of habitat restoration and potential future wildlife releases. I stayed behind at our Airbnb flat and kept up a reduced work load while enjoying the city break.
Day 1, Wednesday the 19th: A travel day. Our journey – two train rides plus a short walk at either end – should have taken just over 7 hours. Instead, it took 14. Recent storms had taken down wires at Durham and left debris on the line, so our original train was terminated at York. We managed to get a connection to Newcastle, queued outside for two hours for rail replacement buses that never came, and finally got a very delayed train through to Edinburgh. Our poor Airbnb hostess’s parents had to wait up for us until 12:40 a.m.
Day 2, Thursday the 20th: After just a few hours of sleep, we were up early so that Chris could leave by 7:15 for his meet-up on the Edinburgh campus. The props and sketches scattered about suggest that the flat owner is a theatre costume and set designer. The view overlooking Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat is spectacular – a great place to put in a few hours of proofreading before heading out to town after lunch.
On Clare’s recommendation I started with the Surgeons’ Hall Museums on the Royal College of Surgeons campus. They have several collections covering the history of surgery, dentistry, and pathology specimens. Many of the names and developments were familiar to me from Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art. Joseph Lister’s frock coat is on display, and in one corner rare video footage plays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was initially a practicing physician) explaining how he based Sherlock Holmes on his university mentor, Joseph Bell.
It’s not a place for the squeamish as there are mummified skeletons, details about Burke and Hare’s grave-robbing, surgical tools, and tumors and other anatomical deformities in jars everywhere. I found it all fascinating and spent a good two hours poking around. My favorite bits were the case full of foreign bodies removed from noses, stomachs and intestines and the temporary exhibition, “A Quest for Healing” by Zhang Yanzi, who had a residency at the museums in the summer of 2017. Her pieces included a 2D mountain made of pill packets, a cotton and gauze sculpture bristling with acupuncture needles, a matching hanging sculpture of capillaries, two surgical beds, and various silk screen panels.
The pathology museum, spread across two floors, was a little overwhelming and almost distressingly faceless – so many human beings reduced to the conditions that had defined and perhaps killed them. The most striking specimen for me, then, was one that actually included a face. I think it was a First World War soldier whose nose had been sewn back together, and what was so remarkable was that you could see his ginger whiskers and eyebrows, and his eyes were closed as if he was just taking a nap. (For ever. In a museum case.)
There are only explanatory panels about a select few samples, so it can be hard to spot just what’s wrong with the organs unless you have specialist medical knowledge. I appreciated the few places where notes have been added along the lines of “see your doctor if…” There were four polycystic kidneys on display in various cases, so including mine there were at least six present in the building that day. “More lives would be saved if more people carried kidney donor cards,” one caption read. Amen.
Clare also recommended the university area for its charity shops. I had a good trawl around Nicolson Street and bought one book, but a lot of the shops are geared towards vintage and High Street fashion. I had better luck at the Salvation Army store on Forrest Road (near the National Museum), where I found three books and two classical CDs.
On to the Writers’ Museum, which commemorates Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I was most interested in the Stevenson material, including memorabilia from his later life on Samoa, especially as I’m currently reading a novel about his relationship with the American divorcee Fanny Osbourne. By now I was museum-ed out and headed back to the flat for a leftovers dinner and some reading before an early bedtime.
Day 3, Friday the 21st: Another morning of work followed by an afternoon of wandering on foot between free attractions and charity shops and avoiding the drizzle. I visited the unusual Scottish Parliament building (which cost a cool £414 million) and saw inside the debating chamber. Four books from the Lothian Cat Rescue charity shop; quick jaunts around the Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Edinburgh, Canongate Kirk, the Music Museum, and the Central Library. When it came to it I couldn’t be bothered to pay £14 to go around Holyrood Palace, but I enjoyed a reasonably priced cappuccino and carrot cake at their café. Chris was back in the evening for a dinner of frozen pizza with local beer and cider.
Day 4, Saturday the 22nd: Our one full day in the City together. We weren’t feeling up to the Arthur’s Seat walk, so we did a gentle stroll up the Salisbury Crags and back instead. Then we caught a bus out to the Stockbridge area for more charity shopping (two more books) and a scrumptious brunch at The Pantry. This was a recommendation on chef David Lebovitz’s food blog and it more than lived up to expectations. It’s no wonder we had to wait half an hour for a table. I could have eaten anything on the menu, but in the end I had smoked salmon eggs Benedict followed by a cherry and Nutella brownie.
After a brief browse at Golden Hare Books, we went on along the Water of Leith to the lovely Royal Botanic Garden. It’s free to walk around, but we also paid to tour the Glasshouses, which recreate the flora of 10 different climates. The RBG is also home to the National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors, a peaceful circular space set back in the woods and marked out by a few benches and stone monuments. As I have organ donors to thank for the continued life and health of my mother and several other relatives, it was well worth a visit.
Back into town for gelato (I had a delicious poached plum and cinnamon sorbet) at Mary’s Milk Bar, which is on Grassmarket across from the Castle and was another Lebovitz recommendation. A quick circuit of the animal hall at the National Museum before it closed, a stroll along the Royal Mile, and a rest with tea and books back at the flat before going back out for a veggie curry.
Day 5, Sunday the 23rd: Return travel day. No major issues, but still enough of a delay to apply for compensation – refunds from LNER and my husband’s work will have made the journey very cheap indeed.
I was sad to leave Edinburgh this time. I loved our Airbnb flat and felt very at home in it. If I had a bicycle to get into town a little faster, I could easily live there. The tourists would probably drive me mad, but Edinburgh is a wonderful place with so much to see and do and such incredible scenery within a short drive.
Thank you to everyone who offered suggestions of what to see and do. I managed to fit in most of what you recommended!
What I read:
The bulk of Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver’s bold new novel about distrust and displacement in America then (the 1870s) and now (during the rise of Trump), and Come to Me by Amy Bloom, a wonderful story collection about people who love who they shouldn’t love. More about this one in my upcoming round-up of short stories I’ve read this month.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is a delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view – first Erich Ackerman, whose Nazi-era history provides the basis for Maurice’s first novel; then Gore Vidal, to whose Italian home Maurice pays a visit with his new mentor; and finally Maurice’s wife Edith, a celebrated author in her own right – before getting Maurice’s own perspective. By this point we know enough about him to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is. My one criticism is that I would have binned the whole subplot about Edith’s sister and brother-in-law. (A nice touch: at one point Maurice buys a reprint copy of Maude Avery’s Like to the Lark, which should ring a bell from The Heart’s Invisible Furies.)
I also read over half of Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, a memoir about two long train journeys she took across America in the late 1990s that also incorporates memories from a troubled adolescence – she started smoking at 14 and was in and out of mental hospitals at 15 – in which she loved nothing more than to read while riding the Circle line all day long. I’m a quarter of the way through both Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about Stevenson and his wife, and Peter Hill’s Stargazing, a memoir about dropping out of art school to become a Scottish lighthouse keeper in 1973; he started on Pladda, a tiny island off of Arran. And on my Nook I read a good bit of All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir about being raised by adoptive white parents in Oregon and meeting members of her Korean family in her mid-twenties, just as she became a mother herself.
This historical novel set in Edinburgh in 1847 has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve come across in a while:
That immediately sets the tone: realistic, sly, and somewhat seedy. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s borrowed from Samuel Butler’s gloomy 1903 meditation on sin and salvation in several generations of a Victorian family. I remember trudging through it on a weekend break to Strasbourg during my year abroad.
Parry (a pseudonym for husband–wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman) uses the allusion to highlight the hidden sins of the Victorian period and hint at the fleshy concerns of their book, which contains somewhat gruesome scenes of childbirth and surgery. Ether and chloroform were recent introductions and many were still apprehensive about them or even opposed to their use on religious grounds, as Haetzman, a consultant anesthetist, learned while researching for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.
Into this milieu enters Will Raven, the new apprentice to Dr. Simpson, a professor of midwifery. Will is troubled by the recent loss of his friend Evie Lawson, the dead prostitute of the first paragraph, and wonders if she could have been poisoned by some bad moonshine. Only as he hears rumors about a local abortionist – no better than a serial killer – who’s been giving women quack pills and potions, followed by rudimentary operations that leave them to die of peritonitis, does he begin to wonder if Evie could have been pregnant when she died.
The novel peppers in lots of period slang and details about homeopathy, phrenology and early photography. Best of all, it has a surprise heroine: the Simpsons’ maid, Sarah Fisher, who keeps shaming Will with her practical medical know-how and ends up being something of a sidekick in his investigations. She wants to work as a druggist’s assistant, but the druggist insists that only a man can do the job. Dr. Simpson recognizes that the housemaid’s role is rather a waste of Sarah’s talents and expresses his hope that she’ll seek to be part of a widespread change for women.
The Way of All Flesh is sure to appeal to readers of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Steven Price’s By Gaslight. It’s not quite as rewarding as the former, but the length and style make it significantly more engaging than the latter. It also serves as a good fictional companion to Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art; for that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist.
“That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.”
“‘Simpson likes to think of medicine as more than pure science,’ [Raven] countered. ‘There must also be empathy, concern, a human connection.’ ‘I suggest that both elements are required,’ offered Henry. ‘Scientific principles married to creativity. Science and art.’ If it is an art, it is at times a dark one, Raven thought, though he chose to keep this observation to himself.”
The Way of All Flesh comes out today, August 30th, in the UK. It was published in the States by HarperCollins on the 28th. My thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy for review.
Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee
Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden. In his second memoir, which arose from a Quartz article entitled “Why Men Fight,” he recounts the training leading up to his charity match and ponders whether aggression is a natural male trait. McBee grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh with a stepfather who sexually abused him from age four. In 2011 he started the testosterone injections that would begin his gender transformation. During the years that followed, other men seemed to pick fights with him fairly often, and he was unsure what to do about it. Finally, in 2015, the Manhattan editor decided to confront the belligerent male stereotype by starting boxing training.
What I most appreciated were the author’s observations of how others have related to him since his transition. He notices that he’s taken more seriously at work as a man, and that he can be an object of fear – when jogging behind a woman at night, for instance. One of the most eye-opening moments of the book is when he realizes that he’s been talking over his own sister. Thankfully, McBee is sensitive enough to stop and change, recognizing that kindness and vulnerability are not faults but attributes any person should be proud of.
I have a feeling I would have preferred his previous memoir, Man Alive, which sounds like it has more about the transition itself. Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and in comparison I didn’t find the boxing writing here very interesting. Likewise, this pales beside two similar but more perceptive books I’ve read that have been hugely influential on my own understanding of gender identity: Conundrum by Jan Morris and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
Amateur was published in the UK by Canongate on August 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Shapeshifters: On Medicine and Human Change by Gavin Francis
Gavin Francis is a physician with a practice near Edinburgh. His latest book is like a taster course in medical topics. The overarching theme is the modifications the body undergoes, so there are chapters on, for example, body-building, tattoos, puberty, prosthetic limbs, dementia and menopause. Over his years in general practice Francis has gotten to know his patients’ stories and seen them change, for better or worse. These anecdotes of transformation are one source for his book, but he also applies insight from history, mythology, literature, etymology and more. So in a chapter on conception he discusses the Virgin Mary myth, Leonardo da Vinci’s fetal diagrams, the physiological changes pregnant women experience, and the case of a patient, Hannah, who had three difficult, surprise pregnancies in quick succession.
We are all in the process of various transformations, Francis argues, whether by choice or involuntarily. (I decided on the link with McBee because of a chapter on sex changes.) I was less convinced by the author’s inclusion of temporary, reversible changes such as sleep, hallucinations, jet lag and laughter. And while each chapter is finely wrought, I felt some sort of chronological or anatomical order was necessary to give the book more focus. All the same, I suspect this will be a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize because of its broad relevance to human health and its compassionate picture of bodies in flux.
Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Brother by David Chariandy
Canadian author David Chariandy’s second novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Narrator Michael and his older brother Francis grew up in the early 1980s in The Park, a slightly dodgy area of Toronto. Their single mother, Ruth, is a Trinidadian immigrant who worked long shifts as a cleaner to support the family after their father left early on. From the first pages we know that Francis is an absence, but don’t find out why until nearly the end of the book. The short novel is split between the present, as Michael and Ruth try to proceed with normal life, and vignettes from the past, culminating in the incident that took Francis from them 10 years ago.
The title is literal, of course, but also street slang for friends or comrades. Michael looked up to street-smart Francis, who fell in with a gang of “losers and neighbourhood schemers” and got expelled from school at age 18. Francis tried to teach his little brother how to carry himself: “You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time.” Yet the more we hear about Francis staying with friends at a barber shop and getting involved with preparations for a local rap DJ competition, the more his ideal of aloof masculinity starts to sound ironic, if not downright false.
I came into the book with pretty much no idea of what it was about. It didn’t fit my narrow expectations of Canadian fiction (sweeping prairie stories or hip city ones); instead, it reminded me of The Corner by David Simon, We, the Animals by Justin Torres, and Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. It undoubtedly gives a powerful picture of immigrant poverty and complicated grief. Yet the measured prose somehow left me cold.
Brother was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sharp by Michelle Dean
“People have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ … who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.” In compiling 10 mini-biographies of twentieth-century women writers and cultural critics who weren’t afraid to be unpopular, Dean (herself a literary critic) celebrates their feminist achievements and insists “even now … we still need more women like this.” Her subjects include Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and Renata Adler. She draws on the women’s correspondence and published works as well as biographies to craft concise portraits of their personal and professional lives.
You’ll get the most out of this book if a) you know nothing about these women and experience this as a taster session; or b) you’re already interested in at least a few of them and are keen to learn more. I found the Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt chapters most interesting because, though I was familiar with their names, I knew very little about their lives or works. Parker’s writing was pulled from a slush pile in 1914 and she soon replaced P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic. Her famous zingers masked her sadness over her dead parents and addict husband. “This was her gift,” Dean writes: “to shave complex emotions down to a witticism that hints at bitterness without wearing it on the surface.”
Unfortunately, such perceptive lines are few and far between, and the book as a whole lacks a thesis. Chance meetings between figures sometimes provide transitions, but the short linking chapters are oddly disruptive. In one, by arguing that Zora Neale Hurston would have done a better job covering a lynching than Rebecca West, Dean only draws attention to the homogeneity of her subjects: all white and middle-class; mostly Jewish New Yorkers. I knew too much about Sontag and Didion to find their chapters interesting, but enjoyed reading more about Ephron. I’ll keep the book to refer back to when I finally get around to reading Mary McCarthy. It has a terrific premise, but I found myself asking what the point was.
Sharp was published in the UK by Fleet on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
I’d previously enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s two nonfiction books, Sixty Degrees North and The Undiscovered Islands. In his debut novel he returns to Shetland, where he spent some of his growing-up and early adult years, to sketch out a small community and the changes it undergoes over about ten months. Sandy has lived in this valley for three years with Emma, but she left him the day before the action opens. Unsure what to do now, he sticks around to help her father, David, butcher the lambs. After their 90-year-old neighbor, Maggie, dies, Sandy takes over her croft. Other valley residents include Ryan and Jo, a troubled young couple; Terry, a single dad; and Alice, who moved here after her husband’s death and is writing a human and natural history of the place, The Valley at the Centre of the World. (This strand reminded me of Annalena McAfee’s Hame.)
The prose is reminiscent of the American plain-speaking style of books set in the South or Appalachia – Richard Ford, Walker Percy, Ron Rash and the like. We dive deep into this tight-knit community and its secrets. It’s an offbeat blend of primitive and modern: the minimalism of the crofting life contrasts with the global reach of Facebook, for instance. When Ryan and Jo host a housewarming party, all the characters are brought together at about the halfway point, and some relationships start to shift. Overall, though, this is a slow and meandering story. Don’t expect any huge happenings, just some touching reunions and terrific scenes of manual labor. David is my favorite character, an almost biblical patriarch who seems “to live in a kind of eternal present, looking neither forward nor backward but always, somehow, towards the land.”
Tallack has taken a risk by writing in phonetic Shetland dialect. David’s speech is particularly impenetrable. The dialect does rather intrude; the expository passages are a relief. I’ve been to Shetland once, in 2006. This quiet story of belonging versus being an outsider is one to reread there some years down the line: I reckon I’d appreciate it more on location.
The Valley at the Centre of the World was published by Canongate on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.