Tag Archives: Canongate

Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Erdrich, Mendelson, Ozeki) & Predictions

Tomorrow the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve become much more invested in this prize over the past few years and will be following the 2022 race especially closely – look out for a related announcement soon. In recent years the nominees have tended to cluster thematically, which can feel redundant. This longlist has a notably high ghost quotient. Two novels I review below feature unquiet spirits, an appearance by the author, and the magical powers of books. The third is a straightforward contemporary dysfunctional family story.

 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

My second from Erdrich (I gave Love Medicine, her first novel, 5 stars in 2020). I will be revisiting this in June because it is our first pick for my tenure in the Literary Wives online book club. For that post I’ll focus on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux, which I won’t mention in this more general response. I was worried that a take on very recent events – this is set in Minneapolis between 2019 and 2020 and covers the first six months of the pandemic plus local protests following George Floyd’s murder – would seem either rushed or dated. I’m still unsure how I feel about encountering Covid-19 in fiction (vs. I’ve read 20 or more nonfiction records now), but I think this novel functions as a sturdy time capsule.

Tookie, the narrator, has a tough exterior but a tender heart. When she spent 10 years in prison for a misunderstanding-cum-body snatching, books helped her survive, starting with the dictionary. Once she got out, she translated her love of words into work as a bookseller at Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s Minnesota independent bookshop (Louise herself is an occasional character). Bibliophiles are sure to enjoy the mentions of the books she presses into customers’ hands; there’s also a fun appendix of recommendations on particular topics.

However, the central mystery about Flora, a dead customer who haunts the store until Tookie figures out why she died and how to exorcise her, struck me as silly. I only appreciated this storyline to the extent that it explores authenticity (Flora may have fabricated her Native heritage) and the inescapability of history. I preferred real life: Tookie getting locked down with her stepdaughter and baby grandson and filling book orders from a closed shop.

Erdrich weaves in Indigenous customs naturally and the banter between the characters, including young shop employees, makes this hip and lighthearted, even as it deals with serious subjects. I smiled at the bookish lingo, like Tookie’s division of her reading into a Lazy Stack and a Hard Stack (“books I would avoid reading until some wellspring of mental energy was uncapped” – my occasional and set-aside titles could comprise the latter) and the “cowbirds,” self-published titles secreted on the shelves that aren’t found until inventory day. There’s also an excellent passage on novellas that I’ll be bringing out in November.

Like a vintage armchair, this is a little overstuffed, but so comfortable you’ll want to stay a while. (See also Laura’s review.) (Public library)

 

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~

Artists, dysfunctional families, and limited settings (here, one crumbling London house and its environs; and about two days across one weekend) are irresistible elements for me, and I don’t mind a work being peopled with mostly unlikable characters. That’s just as well, because the narrative orbits Ray Hanrahan, a monstrous narcissist who insists that his family put his painting career above all else. His wife, Lucia, is a sculptor who has always sacrificed her own art to ensure Ray’s success. But now Lucia, having survived breast cancer, has the chance to focus on herself. She’s tolerated his extramarital dalliances all along; why not see where her crush on MP Priya Menon leads? What with fresh love and the offer of her own exhibition in Venice, maybe she truly can start over in her fifties.

Ray and Lucia’s three grown children, Leah, Patrick and Jess, are all home for Ray’s new exhibition. They’re mere sketches: Leah is Ray’s staunchest supporter and is infatuated with the no-show caterer; Patrick’s mental health is shaky, interfering with his job prospects; Jess, a teacher in Edinburgh, is pregnant but not sure she’s committed to her boyfriend long term. I wanted more depth from all the characters, but especially the offspring. I also expected a climactic late scene on Hampstead Heath to come to more.

Still, the build-up to the exhibit (followed by a laughably pitiful reveal) and Lucia’s inner life form an adequately strong foundation for Mendelson’s sardonic prose. The dialogue, full of interruptions, is true to life. This is her fifth novel and called to mind Jami Attenberg’s and Claire Fuller’s work. (Liz found shades of Iris Murdoch. Susan loved it, too.) I wouldn’t say I’m compelled to seek out more by Mendelson, but this was a solid read. (Public library)

 

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favourite novels of the century (and one of my most popular Goodreads reviews ever), My Year of Meats was a terrific backlist read a couple of summers ago, and I’m eager to catch up on All Over Creation. So I’d built up this fourth Ozeki novel in my head, thinking a library setting and magic realist elements presaged something deliciously Murakami-esque.

What I actually found, having limped through it off and on for seven months, was something of a disappointment. A frank depiction of the mental health struggles of the Oh family? Great. A paean to how books and libraries can save us by showing us a way out of our own heads? A-OK. The problem is with the twee way that The Book narrates Benny’s story and engages him in a conversation about fate versus choice.

When Kenji Oh, a jazz musician, is run over by a chicken truck, Annabelle finds herself a single mother to Benny, a troubled teen who starts to hear everyday objects speaking to him. His voices and Annabelle’s hoarding habit jeopardize the viability of their household: Benny spends time on a psychiatric hospital ward for minors and Annabelle is threatened with eviction. For Benny, the library and the acquaintances he makes there – a fellow pedi-psych patient named Alice who calls herself The Aleph, an Eastern European philosopher who goes by The Bottleman (= Slavoj Žižek?), even the Ozeki figure tapping away on her laptop – may be his salvation; for Annabelle, it could be the book Tidy Magic (modelled on Marie Kondo’s work), written by a Buddhist nun. But until then, their stories get very dark indeed.

Concern for the principal pair and their relationship kept me reading even though this is too long and I wearied of Ozeki’s habit of literalizing metaphors (books speaking to people; being crushed by one’s belongings; crows playing a protective role). I’m still sympathetic to Ozeki’s aims, even if she doesn’t quite pull it all off here. If I pit the rather similar The Sentence and The Book of Form and Emptiness against each other, Erdrich comes out ahead.

With thanks to Canongate for the proof copy for review.

 


I’ve gotten to six books from the longlist so far and have a few more on order at the library. The others I’ve read, with ratings and links to my reviews, are:

 

Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

I’m also partway through The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton, which is enjoyable enough but, alas, suffers in comparison to Daisy Jones and the Six, whose format (a composite oral history of a fictional 1960s/70s musical act) it repeats. The addition of the race issue doesn’t feel sufficient to call it original.

 

I’ve also DNFed a few from the longlist, two of them multiple times, so I have my fingers crossed that they don’t advance!

  • The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
  • The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

 

My attitude to the rest of the longlist is…

  • The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – No plans to read.
  • Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – I might read this from the library. I’m leery of dystopias, but I’m there for a chorus of cows.
  • Careless by Kirsty Capes – No plans to read.
  • Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – I would happily read it if it’s shortlisted, but at over 500 pages I fear it’ll be too dense.
  • Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – Maybe. Sounds like pretty standard Sarah Winman-type stuff, but it could go down well with a book club.
  • This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – No plans to read.
  • Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – I was actually pretty keen to read this one, so I have it on reserve at the library. Egyptian mythology makes a change from the overdone Greeks, and the Washington, D.C. setting is a big draw. Laura’s review has tempered my expectations, but I might still give it a go.

 

My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé

 

vs.

 

My predicted shortlist:

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

 

An overall winner? Gosh, it’s too early to tell. But maybe The Sentence, Sorrow and Bliss or The Island of Missing Trees.

 

See also Laura’s shortlist predictions.

 

What have you read from the longlist so far?

Which of these books are calling to you?

Swedish Death Cleaning (#NordicFINDS and #ReadIndies) & Three Rereads

An unexpected opportunity to contribute another post for Nordic FINDS this week (after my skim of Sophie’s World): yesterday we went into London – for just the second time since the pandemic started – and I took along a couple of novella-length books, one of them this Swedish nonfiction work that I picked up from a charity shop the other week. As it was released by Canongate in 2017, it also fits into Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies challenge.

Our previous London trip was to see Bell X1 play at Union Chapel back in December. Yesterday was also for a gig, this time The Lost Words: Spell Songs playing Cadogan Hall. I’d been dubious about this ensemble project based on Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words and The Lost Spells but ended up loving both books as well as the two albums of folk/world music based on them, and it was a brilliant evening of music.

Anyway, on to the books. I also reread a novella in advance of book club, so afterwards I’ll take a quick look at the rereading I’ve done so far this year.

 

Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

This is not about trauma cleaning, but downsizing and culling possessions so that the burden doesn’t fall to your children or other relatives after your death. Magnusson, who is in her 80s, has experience with death cleaning: first after her mother’s death, then after her mother-in-law’s, and finally after her husband’s, when she decided to move from the family home to a small flat. I enjoyed the little glimpses into her life as a mother of five and an artist. The family moved around a lot for her husband’s work, living in the USA and Singapore. She makes more of an allowance for possessions that hold sentimental value (especially photos and letters), being more concerned about the accumulation of STUFF.

As for general strategies, she suggests starting the process c. age 65 and beginning with the big things, from furniture on down, so that you make visible progress right away. “I’ve discovered that it is rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time and then dispose of them.” She goes category by category through her possessions. Clothing and cookbooks are pretty easy to shed: get rid of whatever doesn’t fit or suit you anymore, and only keep a couple of much-used cookbooks; you can find most any recipe on the Internet these days, after all.  Leave the emotional material for last or you’ll get bogged down, she advises – you can take your time and enjoy reminiscing as you look through mementoes later on. She even considers what to do about old pets.

To let things, people and pets go when there is no better alternative is a lesson that has been very difficult for me to learn, and it is a lesson that life, as it goes further along, is teaching me more and more often.

Magnusson writes that she does not intend this to be a sad book, and it’s mostly very practical and unsentimental, even funny at times: on disposing of secret stuff, “save your favourite dildo but throw away the other fifteen!”; a little section on the perils of “man caves” and her memories of her clumsy cat Klumpeduns. I also laughed at the concept of a fulskåp (“a cabinet for the ugly”) for unwanted gifts that must eventually be rehomed or disposed of.

One problem that I have with decluttering books in general is that there isn’t enough of an anti-consumerist and green message. One, don’t accumulate the stuff in the first place (and reuse and buy secondhand wherever possible); two, possessions should almost never be thrown away, and only as an absolute last resort after doing everything possible to repair, refurbish, rehome or recycle them.

This was an enjoyable little book that I’ll pass on to someone else who might find it useful (so long as it’s not considered too on the nose as a book recommendation!), but it didn’t necessarily add anything for me beyond what I’d encountered in Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin and Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub. (Secondhand purchase)

[I’m a little confused as to whether this is in translation or not. It first appeared in Swedish, but as no translator is listed anywhere in the copyright info, I assume that Magnusson translated it herself. Apart from some wrong number/amount and during/over choices, it reads like a native speaker’s work.]

 

2022’s Rereading

I’ve reread three books so far this year, which for me is pretty good going. It helped that all three were novella length, and I had book club as an excuse to return to the two novels.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes was the other book I popped in the back of my purse for yesterday’s London outing. Barnes is one of my favourite authors – I’ve read 21 books by him now! – but I remember not being very taken with this Booker winner when I read it just over 10 years ago. (I prefer to think of his win as being for his whole body of work as he’s written vastly more original and interesting books, like Flaubert’s Parrot.) It’s the story of an older man looking back on his youth, and his friend’s suicide, in the light of what he learns after a somewhat mysterious bequest. The themes of history, memory and regret certainly mean more to me now in my late 30s than they did in my late 20s, but I still find this work a little lightweight; sordid, too. (Free from mall bookshop)

Readalikes: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was January’s book club selection. I had remembered no details apart from the title character being a teacher. It’s a between-the-wars story set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie’s pet students are girls with attributes that remind her of aspects of herself. Our group was appalled at what we today would consider inappropriate grooming, and at Miss Brodie’s admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. Educational theory was interesting to think about, however. Spark’s work is a little astringent for me, and I also found this one annoyingly repetitive on the sentence level. (Public library)

 

Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide by Jane Walmsley: This is the revised edition from 2003, so I must have bought it as preparatory reading for my study abroad year in England. This may even be the third time I’ve read it. Walmsley, an American in the UK, compares Yanks and Brits on topics like business, love and sex, parenting, food, television, etc. I found my favourite lines again (in a panel entitled “Eating in Britain: Things that Confuse American Tourists”): “Why do Brits like snacks that combine two starches? (a) If you’ve got spaghetti, do you really need the toast? (b) What’s a ‘chip-butty’? Is it fatal?” The explanation of the divergent sense of humour is still spot on, and I like the Gray Jolliffe cartoons. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest feels dated – she’d updated it to 2003’s pop culture references, but these haven’t aged well. (New purchase?)

 

Any Nordic reads, or rereads, for you lately?

The Barbellion Prize 2021 Longlist

This is the second year that the Barbellion Prize will be awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It was a joy to read the entire shortlist for the inaugural prize this past February and support the well-deserved win of Riva Lehrer for Golem Girl. I’ll be following the 2021–22 race with interest again, not least because one of the three judges is a long-time blogger friend of mine, Eleanor Franzen.

This year’s longlist looks fascinating: it contains fiction, poetry and memoir, and includes two works in translation. I happen to have already read the three nonfiction selections, but hadn’t heard of the other nominees.


Click on any title below for more information from the publisher website.

 

Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka (Nine Arches Press)

From the synopsis: “Barokka’s second poetry collection is an intricate exploration of colonialism and environmental injustice … Through these defiant, potent verses, the body—particularly the disabled body—is centred as an ecosystem in its own right.”

 

What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle (Époque Press)

From the synopsis: “Sharing stories of myths, legends and ancient bogs, a deaf child and her grandmother experiment with the lyrical beauty of sign language. A poignant tale of family bonding and the quiet acceptance of change.”

 

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury)
Excerpt from my TLS review: Chronic illness long ago reduced George’s territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto her quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (One of my favourites of the year.)

 

I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir by Jan Grue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Pushkin Press). Translated by B. L. Crook
Excerpt from my Shelf Awareness review: The University of Oslo professor was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age three and relies on an electric wheelchair. In his powerful, matter-of-fact memoir, he alternates between his own story and others’, doctors’ reports and theorists’ quotations, mingling the academic and the intimate.

 

Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Excerpt from my blog review: Hattrick and their mother share a ME/CFS diagnosis. The book searches desultorily for medical answers but ultimately rests in mystery. Into a family story, Hattrick weaves the lives and writings of chronically ill women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alice James and Virginia Woolf.

 

The Coward by Jarred McGinnis (Canongate)

​From the synopsis: “After a car accident Jarred discovers he’ll never walk again. … Add in a shoplifting habit, an addiction to painkillers and the fact that total strangers now treat him like he’s an idiot, it’s a recipe for self-destruction. How can he stop himself careering out of control?”

 

Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment)
From the synopsis: “A coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. … This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy.”

 

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Charco Press). Translated by Frances Riddle

From the synopsis: “After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.”

 

I’m most keen to read Ultimatum Orangutan (that title!), but would gladly read any of the new-to-me titles. The shortlist will be announced in January 2022.

 

Do any of the nominees appeal to you?

#NonFicNov Catch-Up 2: Abbs, Hattrick, Powles, DAD Anthology, Santhouse

I’m sneaking in with five more review books on the final day of Nonfiction November, after a first catch-up earlier on in the month. Today I have a sprightly travel book based on the journeys of female writers and artists, a probing account of repeated chronic illness in the family, an anthology of essays showcasing the breadth of fatherhood experiences, a lyrical memoir-in-essays exploring racial identity, and a psychiatrist’s case studies of how the mind influences what the body feels. My apologies to the publishers for the brief responses.

 

Windswept: Walking in the footsteps of remarkable women by Annabel Abbs

After a fall landed her in hospital with a cracked skull, Abbs couldn’t wait to roam again and vowed all her future holidays would be walking ones. What time she had for pleasure reading while raising children was devoted to travel books; looking at her stacks, she realized they were all by men. Her challenge to self was to find the women and recreate their journeys. I was drawn to this because I’d enjoyed Abbs’s novel about Frieda Lawrence and knew she was the subject of the first chapter here. During research for Frieda, Abbs omitted the Lawrences’ six-week honeymoon in the German mountains, so now she makes it a family cycling holiday, imitating Frieda’s experience by walking in a skirt and sunbathing nude. Other chapters follow Welsh painter Gwen John in Bordeaux, Nan Shepherd in Scotland, Georgia O’Keeffe in the American Southwest, and so on. Questions of risk and compulsion recur as Abbs asks how these women sought to achieve liberation. The interplay between biographical information and travel narrative is carefully controlled, but somehow this never quite came together for me in the way that, for instance, Sara Wheeler’s O My America! did.

(Two Roads, June 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick

“My mother and I have symptoms of illness without any known cause,” Hattrick writes. When they showed signs of the ME/CFS their mother had suffered from since 1995, it was assumed there was imitation going on – that a “shared hysterical language” was fuelling their continued infirmity. It didn’t help that both looked well, so could pass as normal despite debilitating fatigue. Into their own family’s story, Hattrick weaves the lives and writings of chronically ill women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning (see my review of Fiona Sampson’s biography, Two-Way Mirror), Alice James and Virginia Woolf. All these figures knew that what Hattrick calls “crip time” is different: more elastic; about survival rather than achievement.

The book searches desultorily for answers – could this have something to do with Giardiasis at age two? – but ultimately rests in mystery. ME/CFS patients rarely experience magical recovery, instead exhibiting repeated cycles of illness and being ‘well enough’. Hattrick also briefly considers long Covid as another form of postviral syndrome. My mother had fibromyalgia for years, so I’m always interested to read more about related illnesses. Earlier in the year I read Tracie White’s Waiting for Superman, and this also reminded me of Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books, though it’s literary and discursive rather than scientific.

(Fitzcarraldo Editions, August 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

I loved Powles’s bite-size food memoir, Tiny Moons. She won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing for this work in progress, and I was eager to read more of her autobiographical essays. Watery metaphors are appropriate for a poet’s fluid narrative about moving between countries and identities. Powles grew up in a mixed-race household in New Zealand with a Malaysian Chinese mother and a white father, and now lives in London after time spent in Shanghai. Water has been her element ever since she learned to swim in a pool in Borneo, where her grandfather was a scholar of freshwater fish.

The book travels between hemispheres, seasons and languages, and once again food is a major point of reference. “I am the best at being alone when cooking and eating a soft-boiled egg,” she writes. Many of the essays are in short fragments – dated, numbered or titled. A foodstuff or water body (like the ponds at Hampstead Heath) might serve as a link: A kōwhai tree, on which the unofficial national flower of New Zealand grows, when encountered in London, collapses the miles between one home and another. Looking back months later (given I failed to take notes), this evades my grasp; it’s subtle, slippery but admirable.

(Canongate, August 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

DAD: Untold Stories of Fatherhood, Love, Mental Health and Masculinity, edited by Elliott Rae

Music.Football.Fatherhood, a British equivalent of Mumsnet, brings dads together in conversation. These 20 essays by ordinary fathers run the gamut of parenting experiences: postnatal depression, divorce, single parenthood, a child with autism, and much more. We’re used to childbirth being talked about by women, but rarely by their partners, especially things like miscarriage, stillbirth and trauma. I’ve already written on Michael Johnson-Ellis’s essay on surrogacy; I also found particularly insightful R.P. Falconer’s piece on trying to be the best father he can be despite not having a particularly good role model in his own absent father, and Sam Draper’s on breaking the mould as a stay-at-home dad (“the bar for expectations regarding fathers is low, very low”) – I never understood how parental leave works in the UK before reading this. The book is full of genial and relatable stories and half or more of its authors are non-white. It could do with more rigorous editing to get the grammar and writing style up to the standard of traditionally published work, but even for someone like me who is not in the target audience it was an enjoyable set of everyday voices.

(Music.Football.Fatherhood, June 2021.) With thanks for the free copy for review. 

 

Head First: A Psychiatrist’s Stories of Mind and Body by Alastair Santhouse

Santhouse is a consultant psychiatrist at London’s Guy’s and Maudsley hospitals. This book was an interesting follow-up to Ill Feelings (above) in that the author draws an important distinction between illness as a subjective experience and disease as an objective medical reality. Like Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen does in Pain, Santhouse adopts a biopsychosocial approach: “to focus solely on the scientific and neglect he social aspects of illness is a mistake that we continue to make,” he says. Using a patchwork of anonymous case studies, he delves into topics like depression, altruism, obesity, self-diagnosis, medical mysteries, evidence-based medicine, and preparation for death. A discussion of CFS again echoes the Hattrick. He brings the picture up to date with a final chapter on Covid-19. I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs that this one didn’t stand out for me at all, but those less familiar with the subject matter could find it a good introduction to some ins and outs of mind–body medicine.

(Atlantic Books, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Review Book Catch-Up: Motherhood, Nature Essays, Pandemic, Poetry

July slipped away without me managing to review any current-month releases, as I am wont to do, so to those three I’m adding in a couple of other belated review books to make up today’s roundup. I have: a memoir-cum-sociological study of motherhood, poems of Afghan women’s experiences, a graphic novel about a fictional worst-case pandemic, seasonal nature essays from voices not often heard, and poetry about homosexual encounters.

 

(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman by Pragya Agarwal

“Mothering would be my biggest gesture of defiance.”

Growing up in India, Agarwal, now a behavioural and data scientist, wished she could be a boy for her father’s sake. Being the third daughter was no place of honour in society’s eyes, but her parents ensured that she got a good education and expected her to achieve great things. Still, when she got her first period, it felt like being forced onto a fertility track she didn’t want. There was a dearth of helpful sex education, and Hinduism has prohibitions that appear to diminish women, e.g. menstruating females aren’t permitted to enter a temple.

Married and unexpectedly pregnant in 1996, Agarwal determined to raise her daughter differently. Her mother-in-law was deeply disappointed that the baby was a girl, which only increased her stubborn pride: “Giving birth to my daughter felt like first love, my only love. Not planned but wanted all along. … Me and her against the world.” No element of becoming a mother or of her later life lived up to her expectations, but each apparent failure gave a chance to explore the spectrum of women’s experiences: C-section birth, abortion, divorce, emigration, infertility treatment, and finally having further children via a surrogate.

While I enjoyed the surprising sweep of Agarwal’s life story, this is no straightforward memoir. It aims to be an exhaustive survey of women’s life choices and the cultural forces that guide or constrain them. The book is dense with history and statistics, veers between topics, and needed a better edit for vernacular English and smoothing out academic jargon. I also found that I wasn’t interested enough in the specifics of women’s lives in India.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Forty Names by Parwana Fayyaz

“History has ungraciously failed the women of my family”

Have a look at this debut poet’s journey: Fayyaz was born in Kabul in 1990, grew up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, studied in Bangladesh and at Stanford, and is now, having completed her PhD, a research fellow at Cambridge. Many of her poems tell family stories that have taken on the air of legend due to the translated nicknames: “Patience Flower,” her grandmother, was seduced by the Khan and bore him two children; “Quietude,” her aunt, was a refugee in Iran. Her cousin, “Perfect Woman,” was due to be sent away from the family for infertility but gained revenge and independence in her own way.

Fayyaz is bold to speak out about the injustices women can suffer in Afghan culture. Domestic violence is rife; miscarriage is considered a disgrace. In “Roqeeya,” she remembers that her mother, even when busy managing a household, always took time for herself and encouraged Parwana, her eldest, to pursue an education and earn her own income. However, the poet also honours the wisdom and skills that her illiterate mother exhibited, as in the first three poems about the care she took over making dresses and dolls for her three daughters.

As in Agarwal’s book, there is a lot here about ideals of femininity and the different routes that women take – whether more or less conventional. “Reading Nadia with Eavan” was a favourite for how it brought together different aspects of Fayyaz’s experience. Nadia Anjuman, an Afghan poet, was killed by her husband in 2005; many years later, Fayyaz found herself studying Anjuman’s work at Cambridge with the late Eavan Boland. Important as its themes are, I thought the book slightly repetitive and unsubtle, and noted few lines or turns of phrase – always a must for me when assessing a poetry collection.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

Resistance by Val McDermid; illus. Kathryn Briggs

The second 2021 release I read in quick succession in which all but a small percentage of the human race (here, 2 million people) perishes in a pandemic – the other was Under the Blue. Like Aristide’s novel, this story had its origins in 2017 (in this case, on BBC Radio 4’s “Dangerous Visions”) but has, of course, taken on newfound significance in the time of Covid-19. McDermid imagines the sickness taking hold during a fictional version of Glastonbury: Solstice Festival in Northumberland. All the first patients, including a handful of rockstars, ate from Sam’s sausage sandwich van, so initially it looks like food poisoning. But vomiting and diarrhoea give way to a nasty rash, listlessness and, in many cases, death.

Zoe Beck, a Black freelance journalist who conducted interviews at Solstice, is friends with Sam and starts investigating the mutated swine disease, caused by an Erysipelas bacterium and thus nicknamed “the Sips.” She talks to the festival doctor and to a female Muslim researcher from the Life Sciences Centre in Newcastle, but her search for answers takes a backseat to survival when her husband and sons fall ill.

The drawing style and image quality – some panes are blurry, as if badly photocopied – let an otherwise reasonably gripping story down; the best spreads are collages or borrow a frame/backdrop (e.g. a medieval manuscript, NHS forms, or a 1910s title page).

SPOILER

{The ending, which has an immune remnant founding a new community, is VERY Parable of the Sower.}

With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.

 

Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, ed. Anita Roy and Pippa Marland

I hadn’t heard about this upcoming nature anthology when a surprise copy dropped through my letterbox. I’m delighted the publisher thought of me, as this ended up being just my sort of book: 12 autobiographical essays infused with musings on landscapes in Britain and elsewhere; structured by the seasons to create a gentle progression through the year, starting with the spring. Best of all, the contributors are mostly female, BIPOC (and Romany), working class and/or queer – all told, the sort of voices that are heard far too infrequently in UK nature writing. In momentous rites of passage, as in routine days, nature plays a big role.

A few of my favourite pieces were by Kaliane Bradley, about her Cambodian heritage (the Wishing Dance associated with cherry blossom, her ancestors lost to genocide, the Buddhist belief that people can be reincarnated in other species); Testament, a rapper based in Leeds, about capturing moments through photography and poetry and about the seasons feeling awry both now and in March 2008, when snow was swirling outside the bus window as he received word of his uni friend’s untimely death; and Tishani Doshi, comparing childhood summers of freedom in Wales with growing up in India and 2020’s Covid restrictions.

Most of the authors hold two places in mind at the same time: for Michael Malay, it’s Indonesia, where he grew up, and the Severn estuary, where he now lives and ponders eels’ journeys; for Zakiya McKenzie, it’s Jamaica and England; for editor Anita Roy, it’s Delhi versus the Somerset field her friend let her wander during lockdown. Trees lend an awareness of time and animals a sense of movement and individuality. Alys Fowler thinks of how the wood she secretly coppices and lays on park paths to combat the mud will long outlive her, disintegrating until it forms the very soil under future generations’ feet.

A favourite passage (from Bradley): “When nature is the cuddly bunny and the friendly old hill, it becomes too easy to dismiss it as a faithful retainer who will never retire. But nature is the panic at the end of a talon, and it’s the tree with a heart of fire where lightning has struck. It is not our friend, and we do not want to make it our enemy.”

Also featured: Bernardine Evaristo (foreword), Raine Geoghegan, Jay Griffiths, Amanda Thomson, and Luke Turner. 

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.

 

Records of an Incitement to Silence by Gregory Woods

Woods is an emeritus professor at Nottingham Trent University, where he was appointed the UK’s first professor of Gay & Lesbian Studies in 1998. Much of his sixth poetry collection is composed of unrhymed sonnets in two stanzas (eight lines, then six). The narrator is often a randy flâneur, wandering a city for homosexual encounters. One assumes this is Woods, except where the voice is identified otherwise, as in “[Walt] Whitman at Timber Creek” (“He gives me leave to roam / my idle way across / his prairies, peaks and canyons, my own America”) and “No Title Yet,” a long, ribald verse about a visitor to a stately home.

Other times the perspective is omniscient, painting a character study, like “Company” (“When he goes home to bed / he dare not go alone. … This need / of company defeats him.”), or of Frank O’Hara in “Up” (“‘What’s up?’ Frank answers with / his most unseemly grin, / ‘The sun, the Dow, my dick,’ / and saunters back to bed.”). Formalists are sure to enjoy Woods’ use of form, rhyme and meter. I enjoyed some of the book’s cheeky moments but had trouble connecting with its overall tone and content. That meant that it felt endless. I also found the end rhymes, when they did appear, over-the-top and silly (Demeter/teeter, etc.).

Two favourite poems: “An Immigrant” (“He turned away / to strip. His anecdotes / were innocent and his / erection smelled of soap.”) and “A Knot,” written for friends’ wedding in 2014 (“make this wedding supper all the sweeter / With choirs of LGBT cherubim”).

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Book Serendipity, Mid-March to Early May 2021

In early April, the publisher Canongate ran a newsletter competition for one reader to win a stack of their recent releases. All you had to do was reply with your favourite word. On Twitter they gave a rundown of the most popular responses. Turning up several times each were petrichor, mellifluous, and oleaginous. Most frequent of all was serendipity: I was one of 15 to submit it! And one of those entries, but not mine, won. Anyway, fun little story there.

I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.

The following are in roughly chronological order.

  • A white peacock is mentioned in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, both of which were on the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
  • Speaking of that Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, four of the eight were paperbacks with French flaps.

 

  • The main character takes ballet lessons in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez.

 

  • Mermaids! A big theme in The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (of course) and The Republic of Love by Carol Shields, but they’re also mentioned in the opening story of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans and are main characters in “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the anthology Close Company.

  • The Brothers Grimm story about brothers who have been transformed into swans and their sister who sews shirts out of nettles to turn them back is reworked in The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin and used as a metaphor in Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott.

 

  • An electric carving knife is mentioned as a means of suicide (yipes!) in The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

 

  • A discussion of the distinction between the fear of dying and the fear of being dead in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart.

 

  • Two novels in a row in which an older man is appalled by the squalor of his young girlfriend’s apartment, and she calls him “daddy” during sex (double yipes!), made the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist: Luster by Raven Leilani and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
  • Architect husbands in The Push by Ashley Audrain and The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (and, last year, in A Celibate Season by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields), as well as a female architect as a main character in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan earlier this year.

 

  • The next-to-last essay in the Trauma anthology quotes from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I was also reading at the time.

 

  • A mention of the eels in London absorbing cocaine from the Thames in the final essay in the Trauma anthology; I then moved right on to the last 40 pages of Nobody Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood and the same bizarre fact was mentioned. A week and a half later, there it was again, this time in Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic.

 

  • A mention of sailors’ habit of getting tattoos of swallows in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell (who has a swallow tattoo, even though he’s not a sailor) and Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt.
  • A father and teenage child wander an unfamiliar city and enter a sex shop together (yipes yet again!) in Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio and Ten Days by Austin Duffy.

 

  • A mention of the same University of Virginia study in which people self-administered electric shocks to alleviate the boredom of sitting alone with their thoughts in Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.

 

  • Basho’s poetry and George Monbiot’s Feral are both cited in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell and Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

 

  • A dead sister named Mattie in Consent by Annabel Lyon and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.
  • A young Black female protagonist and the same family dynamic (the mother committed suicide and the father is in the Marines/Navy) in The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Luster by Raven Leilani.

 

  • On the same night, I read about two pets encountering snow for the first time: a cat in Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox and a dog in Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.

 

  • A character is described as being as wide as they are tall in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox.
  • A character is known as Seventh in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and the story “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the Close Company anthology. Plus, there’s Septimus in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which I’m reading concurrently with those two.

 

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

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.

Catching Up on Review Books: Antlers, Arnett, E. Williams, Yamboliev

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.

Favorite lines:

“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 rating:


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 rating:


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 rating:


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 rating:


My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

20 Books of Summer 2020 (Food & Drink Theme): #1 Tiny Moons

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”.

My rating:


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?

Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Costello, O’Shaughnessy & Smyth

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.