I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn
Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”
In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.
Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.
(The Wellcome Book Prize isn’t running in 2020, but if it were this would win hands down.)
With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.
Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock
Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.
It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.
This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall
[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]
Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.
Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.
With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.
You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.
With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Many thanks to the publisher for free print or e-copies of these three books for review.
In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller
“Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica? / Well here are the stories underneath.” The last two lines of “The Understory” reveal Miller’s purpose in this, his fifth collection of poetry. The title is taken from Jamaican crime reports, which often speak of a victim’s corpse being dumped in, or perpetrators escaping to, “nearby bushes.” It’s a strange euphemism that calls to mind a dispersed underworld where bodies are devalued. Miller persistently contrasts a more concrete sense of place with that iniquitous nowhere. Most of the poems in the first section open with the word “Here,” which is also often included in their titles and repeated frequently throughout Part I. Jamaica is described with shades of green: a fertile, feral place that’s full of surprises, like an escaped colony of reindeer.
As usual, Miller slips in and out of dialect as he reflects on the country’s colonial legacy and the precarious place of homosexuals (“A Psalm for Gay Boys” is a highlight). Although I enjoyed this less than the other books I’ve read by Miller, I highly recommend his work in general; the collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is a great place to start.
Some favorite lines:
“Here that cradles the earthquakes; / they pass through the valleys // in waves, a thing like grief, / or groaning that can’t be uttered.” (from “Hush”)
“We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.” (from “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places”)
“Cause woman is disposable as that, / and this thing that has happened is … common as stone and leaf and breadfruit tree. You should have known.” (from “In Nearby Bushes” XIII.III)
In Nearby Bushes was published on 29th August.
So Many Rooms by Laura Scott
Art, Greek mythology, the seaside, the work of Tolstoy, death, birds, fish, love and loss: there are lots of repeating themes and images in this debut collection. While there are a handful of end rhymes scattered through, what you mostly notice is alliteration and internal rhyming. The use of color is strong, and not just in the poems about paintings. A few of my favorites were “Mulberry Tree” (“My mother made pudding with its fruit, / white bread drinking / colour just as the sheets waited / for the birds to stain them purple.”), “Direction,” and “A Different Tune” (“oh my heavy heart how can I / make you light again so I don’t have to // lug you through the years and rooms?”). There weren’t loads of poems that stood out to me here, but I’ll still be sure to look out for more of Scott’s work.
So Many Rooms was published on 29th August.
A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann
Rachel Mann, a transgender Anglican priest, was Poet-in-Residence at Manchester Cathedral from 2009 to 2017 and is now a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing and English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. The final five poems are named after some of the daily offices, and “Christening” and “Extreme Unction” are two stand-outs that describe performing rituals for the beginning and end of life. The poet draws on Greek myth as well as on the language of Christian classics from St. Augustine to R.S. Thomas.
Human fragility is an almost comforting undercurrent (“Be dust with me”), with the body envisioned as the site of both sin and redemption. A focus on words leads to a preoccupation with mouths and the physical act of creating and voicing language. There is surprisingly anatomical vocabulary in places: the larynx, the palate. Mann also muses on Englishness, and revels in the contradictions of ancient and modern life: Chaucer versus a modern housing development, “Reading Ovid on the Underground.” She undertakes a lot of train rides and writes of passing through stations, evoking the feeling of being in transit(ion).
You wouldn’t know the poet had undergone a sex change unless you’d already read about it in the press materials or found other biographical information, but knowing the context one finds extra meaning in “Dress,” about an eight-year-old coveting a red dress (“To simply have known it was mine / in those days”) and “Give It a Name,” about the early moments of healing from surgery.
This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines:
“Love should taste of something, / The sea, I think, brined and unsteady, / Of scale and deep and all we crawled out from.” (from “Collect for Purity”)
“I don’t know what ‘believe in’ means / In the vast majority of cases, / Which is to say I think it enough // To acknowledge glamour of words – / Relic, body, bone – I think / Mystery is laid in syllables, syntax” (from “Fides Quarens”)
“Offer the fact of prayer – a formula, / And more: the compromise of centuries / Made valid.” (from “A Kingdom of Love (2)”)
Particularly recommended for readers of Malcolm Guite and Christian Wiman.
Official release date: September 26th – but already available from the Carcanet website.
Any recent poetry reads you’d recommend?
Four February–March releases: A shape-shifting bereavement memoir; a poet’s selected works, infused with nature and history; a novel set among expatriates in Shanghai; and a graphic novel about a romance at the watershed of age 60 – you can’t say I don’t read a variety of books! I’m particularly pleased that two of these four are in translation. All:
When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt
[Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman]
In March 2015 Aidt got a call telling her that her second of four sons, Carl Emil, was dead. The 25-year-old experienced drug-induced psychosis after taking some mushrooms that he and his friend had grown in their flat and, naked, jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window. In italicized sections she cycles back to the moment she was notified, each time adding on a few more harrowing details about Carl’s accident and the condition she found him in. The rest of the text is a collage of fragments: memories, dreams, dictionary definitions, journal entries, and quotations from the patron saints of bereavement (C.S. Lewis and Joan Didion) and poets who lost children, such as Stéphane Mallarmé.
The playful disregard for chronology and the variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are a way of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever. David Grossman, whose son died during his service in the Israeli army, does a similar thing in Falling Out of Time, which, although it is fiction, blends poetry and dialogue in an attempt to voice the unspeakable. Han Kang’s The White Book and Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End are two other comparable precursors.
A representative passage:
“no language possible language died with my child could not be artistic could not be art did not want to be fucking art I vomit over art over syntax write like a child main clauses searching everything I write is a declaration I hate writing don’t want to write any more”
With thanks to Quercus Books for the free copy for review.
Gallop: Selected Poems by Alison Brackenbury
I first encountered Alison Brackenbury’s poetry through her reading as part of the 2017 “Nature Matters” conference in Cambridge. From four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, Brackenbury writes about history, nature, country life (especially horses, as you might guess from the title and cover) and everyday joys and regrets. A Collected/Selected Poems volume is often difficult to assess as a whole because there can be such a variety of style and content; while that is certainly true here in terms of the poems’ length and rhyme schemes, the tone and themes are broadly similar throughout. I connected most to her middle period. Her first and last lines are especially honed.
Highlights include “The Wood at Semmering” (“This is a dismal wood. We missed our train.”), “Half-day” (“Will she lift / Her face from cloth’s slow steam: will she find out / Ironing is duty; summer is a gift?”), “Hill Mist” (“I am too fond of mist, which is blind / without tenderness”), “On the Road” (the bravery of a roadkill squirrel), “Epigrams” (being in the sandwich generation), “The Card” (“Divorce comes close to death”), “Cycles” (“Would I go back?”), “The Jane Austen Reader” (“Welcome to the truth. Miss Bingley married Darcy”), “On the Aerial” (a starling’s many songs), and “Dickens: a daydream.”
Some favorite lines:
“we are love’s strange seabirds. We dive there, still.” (from “The Divers’ Death”)
“Ancestors are not in our blood, but our heads: / we make history.” (from “Robert Brackenbury”)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Besotted by Melissa Duclos
Sasha is soon to leave Shanghai, her departure hastened by the collapse of her relationship with Liz, whom she hired to work at her international school because she had no teaching experience or Chinese – and maybe because she signed her cover letter “Besottedly,” thinking it meant drunkenly. Even before Liz arrived, Sasha built romantic fantasies around her, thinking she’d show her the ropes and give her a spare room to live in. All went according to plan – the erstwhile straight Liz even ended up in Sasha’s bed – until it all fell apart.
The novel is set over one school year and shows the main characters exploring the expat community, which primarily involves going to happy hours. Liz starts language exchange sessions at Starbucks with a Chinese guy, Sam, and both women try to ignore the unwanted advances of their acquaintance Dorian, an architect. Little misunderstandings and betrayals go a long way towards rearranging these relationships, while delicate flashbacks fill in the women’s lives before China.
There were a couple of narrative decisions here that didn’t entirely work for me: Sasha narrates the whole book, even scenes she isn’t present for; and there is persistent personification of abstractions like Loneliness and Love. But the descriptions of the city and of expat life are terrific, and the wistful picture of a romance that starts off sweet but soon sours is convincing.
A favorite passage:
“Shanghai had found its own identity since then: a glittering capitalist heart, hardened into a diamond and barely hidden beneath its drab, brown communist cloak. … Constantly under construction, Shanghai was a place to reinvent yourself.”
Full disclosure: Melissa and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine, and are Facebook friends. She sent me a free proof copy for review.
Blossoms in Autumn by Zidrou and Aimée de Jongh
[Translated from the French by Matt Madden]
The French-language title, translated literally, is The Programmed Obsolescence of Our Feelings. (Talk about highfalutin!) Both that and the English title defy the notion that we become less capable of true love and growth the older we are – as will be dramatized through the story of a later-life romance between the two main characters. Ulysses Varennes, a 59-year-old widower who retired early from his career as a mover, hates books (gasp!) because moving boxes of them ruined his back (he even refuses to read them!). Mediterranea Solenza, coming up on 62, was a nude model in her prime and is now a cheesemaker. At the book’s opening she has just laid her mother to rest, and her affair with Ulysses serves as a chance at a new life that somehow counterbalances the loss.
We come to understand these characters through the sadness of their past but also through their hopeful future, both encompassed by the metaphor of a Homeric journey (Ulysses, get it?). Indeed, the book takes an unusual turn I never would have expected; if it beggars belief, it is at least touching. Zidrou is a Belgian comics writer and Aimée de Jongh is a Dutch-born illustrator. She portrays these ageing bodies sensitively but realistically, retreating into an appropriately impressionistic style for the spreads that show their actual lovemaking. In a nice touch, the first two words and last two words of the book are exactly the same.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.