I read these three collections one at a time over three and a half months of last year, initially intending to write them up as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately deciding to spend more time with the latter two (and then falling ill with Covid before I could write them all up in 2022). They topped my Best Backlist Reads.
The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I could happily read an entire novel set in its realm, but also complete unto itself.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (2012)
I knew Bergman from her second of three collections, Almost Famous Women; this was her debut. As is common for a first book, it incorporates autobiographical characteristics: North Carolina settings, a preponderance of animals (her husband is a vet), and pregnancy and early motherhood. Eleven of the 12 stories are in the first person, there are no speech marks, and the protagonists are generally women in their twenties or thirties coping with young children, crumbling households, ageing parents, and ethical dilemmas at work.
Creatures are companions or catalysts here. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son embark on a road trip to rescue her late mother’s African gray parrot. In the title story, Mae accompanies her father and her new beau on a search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Fear grapples with openness to change for many of these characters, as expressed in the final lines: “I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”
Environmental threat blares in the background, but usually fades in comparison to everyday concerns; the 2050-set “The Artificial Heart” is more alarmed about her aged father’s bionic existence than about a dying planet. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the overall standout for me, ambivalence about motherhood meets climate catastrophism. The narrator’s boyfriend, Malachi, founded a nonprofit called Enough with Us, which asks members to vow not to reproduce so the human race can die out and nature can take over. Embarrassing, then, that she finds herself pregnant and unwilling to tread the hard line he’s drawn. This one is funny and poignant, capturing so many of my own feelings, and seems 10 years ahead of its time.
When someone’s ideal is the absence of all human life, romance is kind of a joke.
I wanted, then, to become what I most admired, what now seemed most real to me. I wanted to be that exalted, complicated presence in someone’s life, the familiar body, the source of another’s existence. But I knew what I wanted was not always what I needed.
I envied my mother’s childhood, the awe with which she’d turned to her country and the world, the confidence she’d had in her right to exist and bear children. The world and mothers alike, I knew, had lost a little freshness.
(Secondhand, a gift from my wish list a couple of years ago)
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)
What a clever decision to open with “Lucky Chow Fun,” a story set in Templeton, the location of Groff’s debut novel – it forms a thread of continuity between her first book and her second. Elizabeth, the only girl on the varsity swim team, comes to a number of realizations about her family and her community, including that the title Chinese restaurant is a front for a brothel that exploits trafficked women. The story becomes a wider parable about appearances and suspicion. “In these dark days, there is so much distrust in this town. … You never know quite what to think about people”. And what a brilliant last line: “I like to think it’s a happy ending, though it is the middle that haunts me.”
“L. DeBard and Aliette” recasts in the notorious Héloïse and Abelard romance an Olympic swimmer and a schoolgirl in Spanish flu-plagued New York City. The other seven stories alternate between historical fiction and contemporary, the USA and abroad, first person and third person, speech marks or none. Desire and boundaries, accomplishment and escape, fear and risk are contradictory pulls. While the details have faded for me, I remember that, while I was reading them, each of these stories enveloped me in a particular world – 30 pages seems like the ideal length here to fully explore a set of characters and a situation. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be “Blythe,” about a woman who feels responsible for her alcoholic best friend. (From my birthday book haul last year)
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (1998)
Life: what an absurd little story it always made.
I’d read a few of Moore’s works before (A Gate at the Stairs, Bark, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) and not grasped what the fuss is about; turns out I’d just chosen the wrong ones to read. This collection is every bit as good as everyone has been saying for the last 25 years. Amy Bloom, Carol Shields and Helen Simpson are a few other authors who struck me as having a similar tone and themes. Rich with psychological understanding of her characters – many of them women passing from youth to midlife, contemplating or being affected by adultery – and their relationships, the stories are sometimes wry and sometimes wrenching (that setup to “Terrific Mother”!). There were even two dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays ones (“Charades” and “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”) for me to read in December.
I’ll single out four of the 12 as favourites, though, really, any or all would be worthy of anthologizing in a volume epitomizing the art of the short story. “Which Is More than I Can Say about Some People” has a mother and daughter learning new things about each other on a vacation to Ireland. “What You Want to Do Fine,” another road trip narrative, stars an unlikely gay couple, one half of which is the flamboyant (and blind) Quilty. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is so vivid on the plight of parents with a child in the paediatric oncology ward that I feel I should check whether Moore lived through that too. And the best of the best: “Real Estate” (not least because she dared to print two full pages of laughter: “Ha!”), which turns gently surreal as Ruth and her philandering husband move into a house that turns out to be a wreck, infested by both animal and human pests.
Moore is as great at the sentence level as she is at overarching plots. Here are a few out-of-context lines I saved to go back to:
She was starting to have two speeds: Coma and Hysteria.
In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.
Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite. Nothing about it gave her proper shelter.
(From Oxfam Books, Hexham – a stop on our Northumberland trip last year)
Two of these writers are best known for their short stories; the third (Groff), to my mind, should be. Unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories – these all earned my rarest rating:
My household has been struck down by
flu Covid this week, so we’ve had to cancel some all of our holiday plans and I haven’t had as much energy or festive good cheer as I would like. This is my favourite time of the blogging year what with everyone’s best-of lists appearing, so I hope that come Boxing Day I will be feeling up for starting my own countdown of superlatives and catching up on everything you all have posted recently.
Two of my recent reads were appropriate Yuletide choices:
Robin by Helen F. Wilson: The most recent release from the “Animal” series issued by the British indie publisher Reaktion. (I’d previously read Seal.) Wilson introduces the breadth of international bird species that are known by the name “robin.” (The European robin, the protagonist of this monograph, is the only bird in its genus and is not as closely related to the American robin (a thrush) as to the bluebird; the name simply referenced the red breast. There are also magpie-robins in Southeast Asia.) Like another strikingly red bird, the cardinal in North America, the robin has long been associated with a) death and b) Christmas. They might be a portent of death, or an embodiment of the soul of the departed. For instance, the legend has it that a robin spent days in Westminster Abbey while Queen Mary II lay in state. Robins are the UK’s official favourite bird because they look cute and act endearing and sing sweetly, but they are violently territorial. (The old nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” also set up a weird and false vendetta between sparrows and robins.) This was a pleasant wander through biological and cultural information. I particularly loved the photos and other illustrations.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: I read this last year but reread it earlier this month for book club. A year ago, I called it a predictable narrative and thought the evil nuns were a stereotype. This time, Keegan really got me in the feels, just as she had with Foster a couple of months before. The Church-sanctioned abuse that was the Magdalen Laundries must have seemed like a system too big to tackle, but take a look at the title. One good man’s small act of rebellion was a way of standing up to the injustice and saying that these girls were of worth (indeed, this won the Orwell Prize for political fiction). This time around, I was especially impressed by how much Keegan fits into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was. We also get a strong sense of a man in the middle of his life: privileged enough, happy enough, but wondering if this is all there is to it; if there is something more on offer. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless, and seems to effortlessly encompass so much of what it means to be human. Absolutely beautiful.
Merry Christmas, all!
Annabel’s readalong was the excuse I needed to try something by children’s fantasy author Susan Cooper – she’s one of those much-beloved English writers who happened to pass me by during my upbringing in the States. I’ve been aware of The Dark Is Rising (1973) for just a few years, learning about it from the Twitter readalong run by Robert Macfarlane. (My husband took part in that, having also missed out on Cooper in his childhood.)
Christmas is approaching, and with it a blizzard, but first comes Will Stanton’s birthday on Midwinter Day. A gathering of rooks and a farmer’s ominous pronouncement (“The Walker is abroad. And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining”) and gift of an iron talisman are signals that his eleventh birthday will be different than those that came before. While his large family gets on with their preparations for a traditional English Christmas, they have no idea Will is being ferried by a white horse to a magic hall, where he is let in on the secret of his membership in an ancient alliance meant to combat the forces of darkness. Merriman will be his guide as he gathers Signs and follows the Old Ones’ Ways.
I loved the evocation of a cosy holiday season, and its contrast with the cosmic conflict going on under the surface.
He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before. Now and forever, he knew, he inhabited a different timescale from that of everyone he had ever known or loved…But he managed to turn his thoughts away from all these things, even from the two invading, threatening figures of the Dark. For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was on the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside.
The bustling family atmosphere is reminiscent of Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s books (e.g., Meet the Austins), as is the nebulous world-building (A Wrinkle in Time) – I found little in the way of concrete detail to latch onto, and like with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, I felt out of my depth with the allusions to local legend. Good vs. evil battles are a mainstay of fantasy and children’s fiction, like in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, or The Chronicles of Narnia I read over and over between the ages of about five and nine. Had I read this, too, as a child, I’m sure I would have loved it, but I guess I’m too literal-minded an adult these days; it’s hard for me to get swept up in the magic. See also Annabel’s review. (Public library)
Headliners 2023 Online Event
For a small fee (the proceeds went to The Arts Emergency Fund), I joined in this Zoom event hosted by Headline Books and Tandem Collective yesterday evening to learn about 10 of the publisher’s major 2023 releases.
Six of the authors were interviewed live by Sarah Shaffi; the other four had contributed pre-recorded video introductions. Here’s a super-brief rundown, in the order in which they appeared, with my notes on potential readalikes:
Dazzling by Chikodili Emelumadu (16 February)
Two girls at a restrictive Nigerian boarding school tap into their power as “Leopard People” to bring back their missing fathers and achieve more than anyone expects of them.
Sounds like: Akwaeke Emezi’s works
A Pebble in the Throat by Aasmah Mir (2 March)
A memoir contrasting her upbringing in Glasgow with her mother’s in Pakistan, this promises to be thought-provoking on the topics of racism and gender stereotypes.
Sounds like: Brown Baby or Brit(ish)
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer (19 January)
In 1834 Barbados, a former slave leaves her sugarcane plantation to find her five children. Shearer is a mixed-race descendant of Windrush immigrants and wanted to focus not so much on slavery as on its aftermath and the effects of forced dispersion.
Sounds like: Sugar Money
Becoming Ted by Matt Cain (19 January)
In a Northern seaside town, Ted is dumped by his husband and decides to pursue his dream of becoming a drag queen.
Sounds like: Rachel Joyce’s works
Mother’s Day by Abigail Burdess (2 March)
As a baby, Anna was left by the side of the road*; now she’s found her birth mother, just as she learns she’s pregnant herself. Described as a darkly comic thriller à la Single White Female.
(*Burdess had forgotten that this really happened to her best childhood friend; her mum had to remind her of it!)
Sounds like: A Crooked Tree or When the Stars Go Dark
Me, Myself and Mini Me by Charlotte Crosby (2 March)
A reality TV star’s memoir of having a child after an ectopic pregnancy.
Sounds like: Something Katie Price would ‘write’. I had not heard of this celebrity author before and don’t mean to sound judgmental, but the impression made by her appearance (heavily altered by cosmetic surgery) was not favourable.
All the Little Bird Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow (2 March)
In the Lake District in the 1980s, Sunday is an autistic mother raising a daughter, Dolly. The arrival of glamorous next-door neighbours upends their lives.
Sounds like: Claire Fuller’s works
The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (19 January)
A work of creative nonfiction about adopting a cat named Mackerel (who briefly appeared on the video) during lockdown, and deciding whether or not to have a child.
Sounds like: Motherhood, with a cat
The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier (30 March)
Set in Northern Italy in 1500, this is about a convent librarian who discovers a rich tradition of goddess worship that could upend the patriarchy.
Sounds like: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s and Maggie O’Farrell’s historical novels
The Housekeepers by Alex Hay (6 July)
A historical heist novel set in 1905, this is about Mrs King, a Mayfair housekeeper who takes revenge for her dismissal by assembling a gang of disgruntled women to strip her former employer’s house right under her nose during a party.
Sounds like: Richard Osman’s works
If there was a theme to the evening, it was women’s power!
I’m most keen to read The Year of the Cat, but I’d happily try 3–4 of the novels if my library acquired them.
Which of these 2023 releases appeal to you most?
As usual, I have a big backlog of 2021–22 releases I’m working my way through. I’ll get there eventually! Today I’m reporting on a poetry collection about English ancestry and wildlife, a vision of post-doubt Christian faith, and a set of essays on connection to nature, specifically flora. (I also take a brief look at some autofiction that didn’t work for me.)
Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury (2022)
I’m familiar with Brackenbury from her appearance at New Networks for Nature in 2016 and her latest selected poems volume, Gallop. This, her tenth stand-alone collection, features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons, as in “Cucu” and “Postcard,” which marks the return of swifts. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes, like in “Fern.” Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies.
I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life as a professional cook and then a mother of four, and “My Grandmother Waits for Christmas,” about a simple link between multiple generations’ Christmases: a sugar mouse. Caring for horses is another recurring theme; a 31-year-old blind pony receives a fond farewell.
There are also playful meetings between historical figures (“Purple Haze,” a dialogue between George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, who saw the composer’s ghost in their shared London home) and between past and contemporary, like “Thomas Hardy sends an email” (it opens “I need slide no confessions under doors”). “Charles Dickens at Home” was another favourite of mine. The title is the never-to-be-reached destination in the final poem, “Shingle.” A number of these poems were first broadcast on BBC Radio.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It by Brian McLaren (2021)
I’ve explained before how McLaren’s books were pivotal to my spiritual journey, even before I attended the church he founded in Maryland. (I’ve also reviewed his previous book, God Unbound). His progressive, environmentalist theology is perfect for continuing searchers like me. At one of last year’s online Church Times Festival events, I saw him introduce the schema that underpins this book. He proposes that the spiritual life (not just Christian) has four stages that may overlap or repeat: simplicity, complexity, perplexity and harmony. The first stage is for new zealots who draw us–them divisions and are most concerned with orthodoxy. In the second, practitioners are more concerned with practicalities: what works, what makes life better. Perplexity is provoked by cynicism about injustice and hypocrisy, while harmony moves beyond dualism and into connection with other people and with nature.
McLaren suggest that honest doubting, far from being a problem, might present an opportunity for changing in the right direction, getting us closer to the “revolutionary love” at the heart of the gospel. He shares stories from his own life, in and out of ministry, and from readers who have contacted him remotely or come up to him after events, caught in dilemmas about what they believe and whether they want to raise their children into religion. Though he’s fully aware of the environmental crisis and doesn’t offer false hope that we as a species will survive it, he isn’t ready to give up on religion; he believes that a faith seasoned by doubt and matured into an understanding of the harmony of all things can be part of a solution.
It’s possible some would find McLaren’s ideas formulaic and his prose repetitive. His point of view always draws me in and gives me much to think about. I’ve been stuck in perplexity for, ooh, 20 years? I frequently ask myself why I persist in going to church when it’s so boring and so often feels like a social club for stick-in-the-mud white people instead of a force for change. But books like this and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, my current soul food, encourage me to keep pursuing spiritual connection as a worthwhile path. I’ll be seeking out his forthcoming book (due out in May), Do I Stay Christian?, too.
Some favourite lines:
“only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies – whether religious, cultural, economic or political. Only through the difficult passage of doubt can we emerge into a new stage of faith and a new regenerative way of life. Everything depends on making this passage.”
“Among all the other things doubt is – loss, loneliness, crisis, doorway, descent, dissent [these are each the subject of individual chapters early on in the book] – it is also this: a crossroads. At the crossroads of doubt, we either become better or bitter. We either break down or break through. We become cynics or sages, hollow or holy. We choose love or despair.”
“Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful. … Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods. Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.”
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
This Book Is a Plant: How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World (2022)
This collection of new essays and excerpts from previously published volumes accompanies the upcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition Rooted Beings (a collaboration with La Casa Encendida, Madrid, it’s curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Emily Sargent and will run from 24 March to 29 August). The overarching theme is our connection with plants and fungi, and the ways in which they communicate. Some of the authors are known for their nature writing – there’s an excerpt from Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, Jessica J. Lee (author of Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest) contributes an essay on studying mosses, and a short section from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass closes the book – while others are better known in other fields, like Susie Orbach and Abi Palmer (author of Sanatorium).
I especially enjoyed novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s “Wilder Flowers,” which is about landscape painting, balcony gardening in pots, and what’s pretty versus what’s actually good for nature. (Wildflowers aren’t the panacea we are sometimes sold.) I was also interested to learn about quinine, which comes from the fever tree, in Kim Walker and Nataly Allasi Canales’ “Bitter Barks.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s essay on the Western influence on Inuit communities in northern Canada, reprinted from Granta, is one of the best individual pieces – forceful and with a unique voice, it advocates reframing the climate change debate in terms of human rights as opposed to the economy – but has nothing to do with plants specifically. There are also a couple of pieces that go strangely mystical, such as one on plant metaphors in the Kama Sutra. So, a mixed bag that jumbles science, paganism and postcolonial thought, but if you haven’t already encountered the Kimmerer and Sheldrake (or, e.g., Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) you might find this a good primer.
With thanks to Profile Books / Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
And one that really didn’t work for me; my apologies to the author and publisher.
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2021)
What a letdown after Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favourite novels of 2015. I’d also read Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize. Despite the amazing title and promising setup – autofiction that reflects on postpartum depression and her Mojave Desert upbringing as a daughter of one of the Manson Family cult members – this is indulgent, misguided, and largely unreadable.
A writer named Claire Vaye Watkins flies to Nevada to give a lecture and leaves her husband and baby daughter behind – for good? To commemorate her mother Martha, who died of an opiate overdose, she reprints Martha’s 1970s letters, which are unspeakably boring. I feel like Watkins wanted to write a memoir but didn’t give herself permission to choose nonfiction, so tried to turn her character Claire’s bad behaviour into a feminist odyssey of sexual freedom and ended up writing such atrocious lines as the below:
“I mostly boinked millennial preparers of beverages and schlepped to book festivals to hook up with whatever adequate rando lurked at the end of my signing line. This was what our open marriage looked like”
“‘Psychedelics tend to find me when I need them,’ she said, sending a rush of my blood to my vulva.”
Her vagina dentata (a myth, or a real condition?!) becomes a bizarre symbol of female power and rage. I could only bear to skim this.
Some lines I liked:
Listen: I am a messenger from the future. I am you in ten years. Pay attention! Don’t fetishize marriage and babies. Don’t succumb to the axial tilt of monogamy! I don’t pretend to know the details of your…situation, but I guarantee you, you’re as free as you’ll ever be. Have sex with anyone you want. Enjoy the fact that it might happen any minute. You could have sex with a man, a woman, both—tonight!
I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to a fellowship at Princeton where I sat next to John McPhee at a dinner and we talked about rocks and he wasn’t at all afraid of me.
With thanks to riverrun for the proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’m old-fashioned and still use a desk calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. I also add in notes after the fact to remember births, deaths, elections, and other nationally and internationally important events. A look back through my 2021 “The Reading Woman” calendar reminded me that last January held a bit of snow, a third UK lockdown, an attempted coup at the U.S. capitol, and the inauguration of Joe Biden.
Activities continued online for much of the year:
- 15 music gigs (most of them by The Bookshop Band)
- 11 literary events, including book launches and prize announcements
- 9 book club meetings
- 3 literary festivals
- 2 escape rooms
- 1 progressive dinner
We were lucky enough to manage a short break in Somerset and a wonderful week in Northumberland. In August my mother and stepfather came to stay with us for a week and we showed off our area to them on daytrips.
As we entered the autumn, a few more things returned to in-person:
- 5 music gigs
- 2 book club meetings (not counting a few outdoor socials earlier in the year)
- 1 book launch
- 1 conference
I was also fortunate to get back to the States twice this year, once in May–June for my mother’s wedding and again in December for Christmas.
On this most recent trip I had some fun “life meeting books” moments (the photos of me are by Chris Foster):
- An overnight stay on Chincoteague Island, famous for its semi-wild ponies, prompted me to reread a childhood favorite, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- Driving from my sister’s house to my mother’s new place involves some time on Route 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, through Pennsylvania. Her town even has a tourist attraction called Lincoln Highway Experience that we may check out on a future trip. (The other claims to fame there: it was home to golfer Arnold Palmer and Mister Rogers, and the birthplace of the banana split.)
- At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, we met the original “Dippy” the diplodocus, a book about whom I reviewed for Foreword in 2020.
- I also took along a copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon and snapped a photo of it in an appropriately mysterious corner of the museum. Unfortunately, I didn’t get past the first few chapters as this debut novel felt dated and verging on racist.
No matter, though, as I donated it at a Little Free Library.
We sought out a few LFLs on our trip, including that one in a log at Cromwell Valley Park in Maryland, where I picked up a Margot Livesey novel and a couple of travel books. My only other acquisition of the trip was a new paperback of Beneficence by Meredith Hall (author of one of the first books to turn me on to memoirs) from Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland, my college town. No secondhand book shopping opportunities this time, alas; just lots of driving in our rental car to visit disparate friends and relatives. However, this was my early Christmas book haul from my husband before we set off:
Another fun stop during our trip was at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where we admired wreaths made of mostly natural ingredients like fruit.
The big news from my household this winter is that we have bought our first home, right around the corner from where we rent now, and hope to move in within the next couple of months. Our aim is to do all the bare-minimum renovations in 2022, in time to put up a tree in the living room bay window and a homemade wreath on the door for next Christmas!
Despite these glimpses of travels and merriment, Covid still feels all too real. I appreciated these reminders I saw recently, one in Bath and the other at the museum in Pittsburgh (Covid Manifesto by Cauleen Smith, which originated on Instagram).
“We all deserve better than ‘back to normal’.”
My first few wintry reads for the season included a modern children’s classic, a wonderful poetry collection, and a so-so Advent-set novella. For my pre-Christmas reads, I have a couple of story-length classics and two recent novellas.
Winter Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
My favourite of the series so far (just Spring still to go) for how nostalgic it is for winter traditions.
“Tobogganing tomorrow,” said Wilfred.
“Snow pancakes for tea,” said Clover.
“We’ll make a snow mouse,” said Catkin.
The mice host a Snow Ball at the Ice Hall, with outfits and dances out of Austen and victuals out of Dickens. As always, the tree-trunk interiors are lit up like doll’s house tableaux with cosy rooms and well-stocked larders. Nothing much happens in this one, but that was fine with me: no need for a conflict and its resolution when you’ve got such a lovely, lucky life. (Public library)
The Winter Orchards by Nina Bogin (2001)
After enjoying Thousandfold in 2019, I was keen to catch up on Bogin’s previous poetry. Themes I’d noted in her latest work, nature and family, are key here, too. There is an overall wistful tone to the book, as in the passages below:
I didn’t like lungwort at first,
its spotted leaves, its furred
flowers, and I didn’t like its name.
But now I want to gather lungwort again,
now that I can’t return
to the brook meadow I picked it in (from “Lungwort”)
I’ll love the fallow and forgotten fields
because I have no choice, and woods
whose paths have been erased. (from “Landscape”)
The losses responded to are sometimes personal – saying Kaddish for her father – and sometimes more broadly representative, as when she writes about a dead bird found on the road or conflicts like the Gulf War and former Yugoslavia. Alongside beautiful nature poetry featuring birds and plants are vignettes from travels in France, Sweden, and upstate New York. (New purchase)
An Advent Calendar by Shena Mackay (1978)
I smugly started this on the first day of Advent, and initially enjoyed Mackay’s macabre habit of taking elements of the Nativity scene or a traditional Christmas and giving them a seedy North London twist. So we open on a butcher’s shop and a young man wearing “bloody swabbing cloths” rather than swaddling clothes, having lost a finger to the meat mincer (and later we see “a misty Christmas postman with his billowy sack come out of the abattoir’s gates”). In this way, John Wood becomes an unwitting cannibal after taking a parcel home from the butcher’s that day, and can’t forget about it as he moves his temporarily homeless family into his old uncle’s house and continues halfheartedly in his job as a cleaner. His wife has an affair; so does a teenage girl at the school where his sister works. No one is happy and everything is sordid. “Scouring powder snowed” and the animal at this perverse manger scene is the uncle’s neglected goat. This novella is soon read, but soon forgotten. (Secondhand purchase)
And so to Christmas…
“The Christmas Dinner” by Washington Irving (1820)
An evocative portrait of an English Christmas meal, hosted by a squire in the great hall of his manor, originally published in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A boar’s head, a mummers’ play, the Lord of Misrule: you couldn’t get much more traditional. “Master Simon covered himself with glory by the stateliness with which, as Ancient Christmas, he walked a minuet with the peerless, though giggling, Dame Mince Pie.” Irving’s narrator knows this little tale isn’t profound or intellectually satisfying, but hopes it will raise a smile. He also has a sense that he is recording something that might soon pass away:
I felt also an interest in the scene, from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion. … There was a quaintness, too, mingled with all this revelry, that gave it a peculiar zest; it was suited to the time and place; and as the old Manor House almost reeled with mirth and wassail, it seemed echoing back the joviality of long-departed years.
A pleasant one-sitting read; so much better than a Christmas card!
This Renard Press pamphlet is in support of Three Peas, a charity providing food and medical care to refugees in Europe. Thanks to Annabel for my gifted copy!
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)
Always, Christmas brought out the best and the worst in people.
This was our second most popular read during last month’s Novellas in November challenge. I’d read a lot about it in fellow bloggers’ posts and newspaper reviews so knew to expect a meticulously chiselled and heartwarming story about a coal merchant in 1980s Ireland who comes to value his quiet family life all the more when he sees how difficult existence is for the teen mothers sent to work in the local convent’s laundry service. Born out of wedlock himself nearly 40 years ago, he is grateful that his mother received kindness and wishes he could do more to help the desperate girls he meets when he makes deliveries to the convent.
I found this a fairly predictable narrative, and the nuns are cartoonishly villainous. So I wasn’t as enthusiastic as many others have been, but still enjoyed having this as one of my reads on my travel day to the USA. I was familiar with the Magdalene Laundries from the movie The Magdalene Sisters and found this a touching reminder to be grateful for what you have while helping those less fortunate. A perfect message for Christmas. (NetGalley)
Miss Marley by Vanessa Lafaye (2018)
Lafaye was a local-ish author to me, an American expat living in Marlborough. When she died of breast cancer in 2018, she left this A Christmas Carol prequel unfinished, and fellow historical novelist Rebecca Mascull completed it for her. Clara and Jacob Marley come from money but end up on the streets, stealing from the rich to get by. Jacob sets himself up as a moneylender to the poor and then, after serving an apprenticeship alongside Ebenezer Scrooge, goes into business with him. They are a bad influence on each other, reinforcing each other’s greed and hard hearts. Jacob is determined never to be poor again. Because he’s forgotten what it’s like, he has no compassion when Clara falls in love with a luckless Scottish tea merchant. Like Scrooge, Jacob is offered one final chance to mend his ways. This was easy and pleasant reading, but I did wonder if there was a point to reading this when one could just reread Dickens’s original. (Secondhand purchase)
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas (1952)
(Illus. Edward Ardizzone, 1978)
It’s a wonder I’d never managed to read this short story before. I was prepared for something slightly twee; instead, it is sprightly and imaginative, full of unexpected images and wordplay. In the Wales of his childhood, there were wolves and bears and hippos. Young boys could get up to all sorts of mischief, but knew that a warm house packed with relatives and a cosy bed awaited at the end of a momentous day. Reflective and magical in equal measure; a lovely wee volume that I am sure to reread year after year. (Little Free Library)
A favourite passage:
Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.
If there’s been one adjective linking most of these books, it’s been “nostalgic.” There’s something about winter in general, and the holiday season in particular, that lends itself to thinking back to the past and trying to preserve traditions, isn’t there?
What’s on your holiday reading pile this year?
Today I have a book of medico-philosophical musings, a triptych of novels about the resonant moments of a Canadian childhood, and a varied collection of ekphrastic poems.
Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook by Iain Bamforth (2020)
A doctor based in Strasbourg, Iain Bamforth offers a commonplace book full of philosophical musings on medicine and wellness from the ancient world to today. All through December I would read just a few pages at a time as a palate cleanser between larger chunks of other books. Most of the entries are under three pages in length, with some one-sentence dictums interspersed. The point of reference is broadly European, with frequent allusions to English, French, and German literature (Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann) and to Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The themes include memory, overtreatment, technology, and our modern wellness culture. If you’re equally interested in medicine and philosophy, this is a perfect bedside book for you; if you only gravitate towards one or the other, it’s possible that you could run low on patience for the high-brow rumination. My favourite piece was on “panicology,” and two stand-out lines are below.
“Prognostication is where writers and doctors resemble each other most.”
“A proper attitude to death can be a source of life. That is medicine’s only profundity.”
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath (2011–19)
I’m indulging in one last listen to our holiday music compilations as I write, before putting everything away until a hoped-for ‘Christmas in July’ with family and friends. Yesterday I devoured Broke City, the third novella in Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa Trilogy, in one sitting and treasured all the Christmas and pine tree references: they bind the book together but also connect it satisfyingly back to Book 1, Santa Rosa, which opened with Christine’s neighbour preparing a Christmas cake one summer. That annual ritual and its built-in waiting period take on new significance when the adult Christine’s life changes suddenly.
In this trio of linked narratives about Christine’s 1960s Edmonton childhood, totem objects and smells evoke memories that persist for decades: Pine-Sol, her parents’ cigarettes, the local meat-packing plant. Even at age seven, Christine is making synaesthetic links between colours and scents as she ponders language and imagines other lives. That her recollections – of a carnival, the neighbourhood grocery store, queasy road trips to her grandmother’s in Saskatchewan, a drive-in movie, and Christmas Eve with her father’s side of the family – so overlap with my late-1980s mental flipbook proves not that suburban Maryland and upstate New York (where I grew up and my mother’s home turf, respectively) are so similar to Alberta, but that this is the universal stuff of a later 20th-century North American childhood.
The other night, discussing The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my book club noted how difficult it is to capture childhood in all its joy and distress. McGrath does so superbly, exploiting the dramatic irony between what Christine overhears and what she understands. Readers know her parents’ marriage is in trouble because she never sees them laughing or happy, and she hears her mother complain to her father about his drinking. We know the family is struggling because a man from the City delivers a box of Spam, standard issue to all those who are out of work over the winter. A simple mishearing (“clatteral,” “brain tuber”; thinking that an abattoir sounds “like a fancy ballroom”) can be a perfect example of the child perspective, too. Meanwhile, the pop culture references situate the story in the time period.
Towards the end of Broke City, young Christine declares, “I shall be unusual.” As we root for the girl to outrun her sadder memories and forge a good life, we hope that – like all of us – she’ll find a balance between the ordinary and the exceptional through self-knowledge. While Broke City was my favourite and could probably stand alone, it’s special to chart how moments turn into memories across the three books. I’d recommend the trilogy to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Tessa Hadley, and Elizabeth Hay. I particularly loved the hybrid-poetry style of the Prologue to Santa Rosa (similar to what Bernardine Evaristo employs), so I would also be interested to try one of McGrath’s two poetry collections.
Some favourite passages:
“he walks at the same time everyday summer and winter
early morning when the day still makes promises” (Santa Rosa)
“Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world. … Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now. How did this happen? There must have been something she wasn’t paying attention to, something she didn’t see coming.” (Broke City)
With thanks to Wendy McGrath and Edmonton’s NeWest Press for the e-copies for review. I learned about the books from Marcie; see her appreciation of McGrath’s work at Buried in Print.
Color and Line by Carole Mertz (2021)
“Ekphrastic” was a new vocabulary word for me – or, if I’d heard it before, I needed a reminder. It refers to poetry written to describe or respond to artworks. Many of Carole Mertz’s poems, especially in the first section, attest to her love of the visual arts. This is the Ohio church organist’s first full-length collection after the 2019 chapbook Toward a Peeping Sunrise and extensive publication in literary magazines. She was inspired by art ranging in date from 1555 to 2019. “Come Share a Glass with Me,” for instance, is a prose poem that imagines the story behind a Van Gogh. I loved the line “The ewer sits expectant” in a short poem capturing The Staircase by Xavier Mellery.
One could look up all of the artworks discussed, but the descriptions here are so richly detailed that I often didn’t feel I needed to. Two paintings in a row depict sisters. A poem about Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist draws on the Bible story, but also on its many portrayals through art history. Other topics include concern for the Earth and beloved works of literature. I particularly enjoyed “The Word in Joseph’s Hand,” a Christmas hymn that can be sung to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and a haiku about a cardinal, “a flash of bright red / … in the garden”. Below is my favourite of the poems; it incorporates the titles of 14 books, nine of them by Anne Tyler. See if you can spot them all!
Color and Line was released by Kelsay Books on the 2nd. My thanks to Carole Mertz for the e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
And, just for fun, put a description of or link to your favourite Bernie-in-mittens meme in the comments.
I’ve never had a Christmas Day without my immediate family or in-laws before, but when West Berkshire leapt into the Tier 4 (highest) COVID-19 risk category on Saturday it was clear that even our modest plans to spend 48 hours at my parents-in-law’s home by the coast would be dashed. How we’d looked forward to seeing other people and going somewhere else! Nothing dramatic; just a change of scene and an excuse to pack an overnight bag and a giant tote full of books. The bright side, if there is one, is that we can choose exactly how to spend the holidays, and my husband – a fantastic cook – will have total control over the feast.
To keep our spirits up, we’ve done more Christmas decorating than usual. Our lounge is dominated by the biggest tree we’ve had yet, there’s holly all over, and we strung colored fairy lights across one wall. After Saturday’s bad news, we brought forward our annual viewing of Elf. And of course, I have a stack of seasonally appropriate books at the ready.
Here’s the first two I managed to read for review:
Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown
Many of these 30 short stories originally appeared in publications like the Scotsman, Tablet and Glasgow Herald between the 1940s and 1990s, with some also reprinted in previous Mackay Brown story volumes. This posthumous collection of seasonal tales by Orkney’s best-known writer runs the gamut from historical fiction to timeless fable, and travels from the Holy Land to Scotland’s islands. Often, Orkney is contrasted with Edinburgh, as in one of my favorites, “A Christmas Exile,” in which a boy is sent off to Granny’s house in Orkney one winter while his mother is in hospital and longs to make it home in time for Christmas.
Although the main characters are usually crofters, fishermen and lairds, they take on other roles in Nativity and Christmas Carol-like setups. For instance, a skipper, a miller, and a shepherd play the part of the Three Kings, while a greedy general merchant who won’t close his shop for Christmas Day is like Ebenezer Scrooge. Biblical and Dickensian figures merge in “An Epiphany Tale,” in which a deaf-blind-mute boy is visited by three strangers who give him back each of his senses, in turn, for one magical day. Characters get visions of the past or glimpses of how the other half live (“The Poor Man in His Castle”). Children are disabused of the idea of Santa Claus, but the unexplained still fuels a sense of wonder, as in Jeanette Winterson’s holiday stories. Even the poor have small gifts and pleasures to look forward to.
As editor William S. Peterson notes in his introduction, Calvinism had erased much of the joy from Christmas in Scotland, but in Mackay Brown’s lifetime he saw Yule traditions returning and was keen to emphasize that Christmas was not just about one day of celebration but was a whole season running from Advent through to Epiphany. The story “I Saw Three Ships…” remembers an oppressed past, though: set at the end of the Civil War, after King Charles I was beheaded, it is set at a time when the government declared “‘There will be no more Christmas. Christmas is abolished and forbid in the islands here, as it has been put down everywhere in this commonwealth. We will have no more of such ancient mummery.’ … Men reckoned that that was the longest coldest dreichest winter ever known in Orkney.” Those words might feel gloomily appropriate, but let’s celebrate all the more in defiance.
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell
Words for snow exist in most of the world’s languages – even those spoken in countries where it rarely, if ever, snows. For instance, Thai has “hima” at the ready even though there were only once claims of a snow flurry in Thailand, in 1955. Campbell meanders through history, legend, and science in these one- to five-page essays. I was most taken by the pieces on German “kunstschnee” (the fake snow used on movie sets), Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” (snowflakes big as a dog’s paw, a phrase used as a track title on one of Jónsi’s albums – an excuse for discussing the amazing Sigur Rós), and Estonian “jäätee” (the terrifying ice road that runs between the mainland and the island of Hiiumaa – only when the ice is 22 cm thick, and with cars traveling 2 minutes apart and maintaining a speed of 25–40 km/hour).
The white and blue tendrils of the naked hardback’s cover creep over onto the endpapers, each essay is headed by a Wilson Bentley photograph of a snowflake, and the type is in a subtle dark blue ink rather than black. Too many of the essays are thin or dull, such that the contents don’t live up to the gorgeous physical object they fill. Still, I imagine you have a snow-loving relative who would appreciate a copy as a seasonal coffee table book.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
“The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather (1896)
This Renard Press pamphlet supporting the Three Peas charity (in aid of Europe’s refugees) was sent to me as a Christmas card alternative by Annabel/Shiny New Books. A young man wanders the slushy streets of Chicago one Christmas Eve. On this, his 24th birthday, he laments how low he has sunk that he has to rob the rich in order to get money to eat. But in this take on the Prodigal Son story, there is a second chance at forgiveness and a good life. I was reminded of the high society atmosphere of Edith Wharton’s work and the moral fables of O. Henry. The lovely little story has a William Morris design on the cover. I’ll keep it with my small collection of Christmas books and bring it out to reread in future years.
Are you reading any Christmas or wintry books?
What are your plans for the holidays?
I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.
She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.
Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.
Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)
Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.
Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.
My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”
A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.
I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”
In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.
By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)
And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.
Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.
I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).
I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.
I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.