Tag Archives: COVID-19

Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Book of Hours by Letty McHugh

The Barbellion Prize shortlist, announced yesterday, consists of the short story collection Polluted Sex and the novel Chouette, both of which I’m still keen to read; and two nonfiction works, Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed last year, and Letty McHugh’s hybrid memoir, Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul.

I’m saving up tiny joys the way a bear fattens up for the coming winter

 

A patchwork quilt of ordinary leftover happiness

to keep me warm through the darkest part of the night.

In medieval times, a book of hours was a devotional book that set out the day’s prayers. Usually an illuminated manuscript, it was a precious object for laypeople, and a way of marking time. For Letty McHugh, a Yorkshire-based visual artist who lives with chronic pain and illness, this book of hours is many things: a journal, a scrapbook, an enquiry into the monastic impulse, and an interrogation of the potential meanings of physical suffering.

In April 2020, McHugh experienced a relapse of MS so bad she had to move back in with her parents and was sleeping 20 hours a day. Her sphere had contracted to a single room. If only, she wished, there was “something to concentrate on that wasn’t my unravelling body or the unravelling world.” A Catholic upbringing and childhood holidays in Northumberland made her think about the early Christian hermits and saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Julian of Norwich who salvaged something from solitude, who out of the privations of monasticism made monuments of faith and, sometimes, written documents, too.

This was the inspiration behind her own book of hours, which intersperses poems and photographs of found objects (wildflowers, animal skulls, sea glass and shells) with biographical sketches of saints, short autobiographical essays about her childhood and career, and musings on faith and pain. Metaphors of magic and outer space contrast with the claustrophobia of “the illness place,” somewhere she knows she’ll return to again and again. Although she knows she will never be perfectly holy or perfectly productive, she is encouraged to know that even those with confined lives (such as Emily Dickinson) can have a rich inner existence. While she resists the desire for a cure, or for a simple meaning to suffering, she bears witness to the fact that creativity can emerge in spite of everything.

I enjoyed spending time with this meticulously crafted and meditative work that engages with the present moment but also the eternal. It’s perfect onward reading for fans of the inaugural Barbellion Prize winner, Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, and A Still Life by Josie George, a shortlistee from last year.


Book of Hours was self-published with assistance from Disability Arts Online. You can buy a signed copy of the handmade book from her Etsy shop, or read the text for free here.

With thanks to Letty McHugh for sending a free e-copy for review.

 

This year’s Barbellion Prize judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The winner will be announced in February.

The Swedish Art of Ageing Well by Margareta Magnusson (#NordicFINDS23)

Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge is running for the second time this month. I hope to manage at least one more read for it; this one feels like a cheat as it’s not exactly in translation. Magnusson, who is Swedish, either wrote it in English or translated it herself for simultaneous 2022 publication in Sweden and the USA – where the title phrase was “Aging Exuberantly.” There is some quirky phrasing that a native speaker would never use, more so than in her Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which I reviewed last year, but it’s perfectly understandable.

The subtitle is “Life wisdom from someone who will (probably) die before you,” which gives a flavour of 89-year-old Magnusson’s self-deprecating sense of humour. The big 4-0 is coming up for me later this year, but I’ve been reading books about ageing and death since my twenties and find them valuable for gaining perspective and storing up wisdom.

This is not one of those “hygge” books extolling the virtues of Scandinavian culture, but rather a charming self-help memoir recounting what the author has learned about what matters in life and how to gracefully accept the ageing process. Each chapter is like a mini essay with a piece of advice as the title. Some are more serious than others: “Don’t Fall Over” and “Keep an Open Mind” vs. “Eat Chocolate” and “Wear Stripes.”

Since Magnusson was widowed, she has valued her friendships all the more, and during the pandemic cheerfully switched to video chats (G&T in hand) with her best friend since age eight. She is sweetly optimistic despite news headlines; after all, in the words of one of her chapter titles, “The World Is Always Ending” – she grew up during World War II and remembers the bad old days of the Cold War and personal near-tragedies like when the ship on which her teenage son was a deckhand temporarily disappeared in the South China Sea.

Lots of little family anecdotes like that enter into the book. Magnusson has five children and lived in Singapore and Annapolis, Maryland (my part of the world!) for a time. The open-mindedness I’ve mentioned was an attitude she cultivated towards new-to-her customs like a Chinese wedding, Christian adult baptism, and Halloween. Happy memories are her emotional support; as for physical assistance: “I call my walker Lars Harald, after my husband who is no longer with me. The walker, much like my husband was, is my support and my safety.”

Volunteering, spending lots of time with younger people, looking after another living thing (a houseplant if you can’t commit to a pet), turning daily burdens into beloved routines, and keeping your hair looking as nice as possible are some of Magnusson’s top tips for coping.

An appendix gives additional death-cleaning guidance based on Covid-era FAQs; the chapter in this book that is most reminiscent of the practical approach of Döstädning is “Don’t Leave Empty-Handed,” which might sound metaphorical but in fact is a literal mantra she learned from an acquaintance. On a small scale, it might mean tidying a room gradually by picking up at least one item each time you pass through; more generally, it could refer to a mindset of cleaning up after oneself so that the world is a better place for one’s presence.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

11 Days, 11 Books: 2023’s Reading So Far

I realized that, as in 2020, I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year (including a Patrick Gale again). Some of the below I’ll be reviewing in full for other themes or challenges coming up, and others have paid reviews pending that I can’t share yet, but I’ve written a little bit about each of the others. Here’s how my reading year has started off…

 

A children’s book

Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Similar in strategy to Hargrave’s previous book (also illustrated by her husband Tom de Freston), Julia and the Shark, one of my favourite reads of last year – both focus on the adventures of a girl who has trouble relating to her mother, a scientific researcher obsessed with a particular species. Leila, a Syrian refugee, lives with family in London and is visiting her mother in the far north of Norway. She joins her in tracking an Arctic fox on an epic journey, and helps the expedition out with social media. Migration for survival is the obvious link. There’s a lovely teal and black colour scheme, but I found this unsubtle. It crams too much together that doesn’t fit.

 

Celebrity autobiographies

A genre that pretty much never makes it onto my stacks, but I read these two despite knowing little to nothing about the authors; instead, I was drawn in by their particular stories.

A Heart that Works by Rob Delaney – Delaney is an American actor who was living in London for TV filming in 2016 when his third son, baby Henry, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died before the age of three. The details of disabling illness and brutal treatment could not be other than wrenching, but the tone is a delicate balance between humour, rage, and tenderness. The tribute to his son may be short in terms of number of words, yet includes so much emotional range and a lot of before and after to create a vivid picture of the wider family. People who have never picked up a bereavement memoir will warm to this one.

 

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – Again, I was not familiar with the author’s work in TV/comedy, but had heard good things so gave this a try. It reminded me of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father what with the African connection, the absent father, the close relationship with his mother, and the reflections on race and politics. I especially loved his stories of being dragged to church multiple times every Sunday. He writes a lot about her tough love, and the difficulty of leaving hood life behind once you’ve been sucked into it. The final chapter is exceptional. Noah does a fine job of creating scenes and dialogue; I’d happily read another book of his.

 

Novels

Bournville by Jonathan Coe – Coe does a good line in witty state-of-the-nation novels. Patriotism versus xenophobia is the overarching dichotomy in this one, as captured through a family’s response to seven key events from English history over the last 75+ years, several of them connected with the royals. Mary Lamb, the matriarch, is an Everywoman whose happy life still harboured unfulfilled longings. Coe mixes things up by including monologues, diary entries, and so on. In some sections he cuts between the main action and a transcript of a speech, TV commentary, or set of regulations. Covid informs his prologue and the highly autobiographical final chapter, and it’s clear he’s furious with the government’s handling.

 

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng – Disappointing compared to her two previous novels. I’d read too much about the premise while writing a synopsis for Bookmarks magazine, so there were no surprises remaining. The political commentary, though necessary, is fairly obvious. The structure, which recounts some events first from Bird’s perspective and then from his mother Margaret Miu’s, makes parts of the second half feel redundant. Still, impossible not to find the plight of children separated from their parents heart-rending, or to disagree with the importance of drawing attention to race-based violence. It’s also appealing to think about the power of individual stories and how literature and libraries might be part of an underground protest movement.

 

And a memoir in miniature

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly – I love memoirs-in-essays. Fennelly goes for the same minimalist approach as Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Pieces range from one line to six pages and mostly pull out moments of note from the everyday of marriage, motherhood and house maintenance. I tended to get more out of the ones where she reinhabits earlier life, like “Goner” (growing up in the Catholic church); “Nine Months in Madison” (poetry fellowship in Wisconsin, running around the lake where Otis Redding died in a plane crash); and “Emulsionar,” (age 23 and in Barcelona: sexy encounter, immediately followed by scary scene). Two about grief, anticipatory for her mother (“I’ll be alone, curator of the archives”) and realized for her sister (“She threaded her arms into the sleeves of grief” – you can tell Fennelly started off as a poet), hit me hardest. Sassy and poignant.

 

The best so far? Probably Born a Crime, followed by Bournville.

Any of these you have read or would read?

Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)

We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.

 

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)

[85 pages]

This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”

My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.

 

Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)

[52 pages]

The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.

Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.

 

Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.

As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.

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

 

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)

[181 pages]

A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.

In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)

 

PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)

[96 pages]

Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)

 

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)

[175 pages]

August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)

 

In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.

September Releases by John Clegg & Tom Gauld (Lots More to Come!)

There aren’t enough hours in the day, or days left in this month, to write up all the terrific September releases I’ve read. The nonfiction fell into two broad thematic camps: books about books (Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell and Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder still to come), or books about death (What Remains? by Rupert Callender, And Finally by Henry Marsh, and Sinkhole by Juliet Patterson still to come). However, I’ll start off with the two I happen to have written about so far, which are (the odd one out) poetry about science and watery travel, and bookish cartoons. Both:

 

Aliquot by John Clegg

This is the second Carcanet collection by the London bookseller. An aliquot is a sample, a part that represents the whole; a scientific counterpart to synecdoche. It’s a perfect word for what poetry can do: point at larger truths through the pinpricks of meaning found in the everyday. The title poem juxtaposes two moments where the poet muses on the part/whole dichotomy: watching a catering school student and teacher transferring peas from one container to another and spotting two cellists on a tube train. Drawn in by detail, we observe the inevitable movement from separation to togetherness.

A high point is “A Gene Sequence,” about an administrator working behind the scenes at a genomics conference on a Cambridge campus: each poem is named after a different amino acid and the lines (sometimes with the help of extreme enjambment) always begin with the arrangement of A, C, G, and T that encodes them. Here’s an example:

Much of the imagery is maritime, with the occasional reference to a desert (“Language as Sonora”) or settlement (“Dormer Windows” and “Quebec City”). The locations include a science campus and a storm-threatened hotel (“Hurricane Joaquin,” one of my favourites). A proverb is described as being as potent as a raw onion. Here’s a lynx you’ll never see – but she will see you. Like in a Caroline Bird collection, there’s many an absurd or imagined situation. The vocabulary is unusual, sometimes lofty: “their cursory repertoire of query.” Alliteration teems, as in “The High Lama Explains How Items Are Procured for Shangri-La.” Overall, a noteworthy and unique collection that I’d recommend.

A favourite, apropos of nothing stanza from “Lucan – The Waterline”:

There is a kind of crab known to devour human flesh.

There is a shelf five storeys undersea

Where small yachts pile up like bric-a-brac.

There is a town in Maryland called Alibi.

With thanks to Carcanet for the advanced e-copy for review.

 

Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld

You have probably seen Gauld’s cartoons in the Guardian, New Scientist or New Yorker. I’ve saved clippings of my favourite bookish ones over the years. They’re full of literary in-jokes and bibliophile problems, and divided about equally between a writer’s perspective and a reader’s: the struggle for inspiration and novelty on the one hand, and the battle with the TBR and the impulse to read what one feels one should versus what one enjoys on the other. He pokes holes in the pretensions on either side. Jane Austen features frequently.

Gauld’s figures are usually blocky stick figures without complete facial features (or books or ghosts), and he often makes use of multiple choice and choose your own adventure structures. Elsewhere he plays around with book titles and typical plots, or stages mild-mannered arguments between authors and their editors or publicists, who generally have quite different notions of quality and marketability.

Lest you dismiss cartoons as being out of touch, the effect of the pandemic on bookshops, libraries and literary events is mentioned a few times. Librarians are depicted as old-time gangsters peddling books while their buildings are closed: “Overdue books are dealt with swiftly and mercilessly” it reads under a panel of a fedora-wearing, revolver-toting figure warning, “The boss says if you ain’t finished ‘The Mirror and the Light’ by tomorrow, it’s curtains!”

Some more favourite lines:

  • “1903: Henry James writes a sentence so long and circuitous that he becomes lost inside it for three days.”
  • (says one pigeon to another) “I’ve become a psychogeographer. It’s mainly walking around disapproving of gentrification.”
  • “A horrible feeling crept over Elaine that perhaps the problems with her novel couldn’t be overcome by changing the font.”

Two spreads that are too good not to share in full (I feel seen!):

And would you look at this attention to detail on the inside cover!

This is destined for many a book-lover’s Christmas stocking.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Tempted to read one of these?
What other September releases can you recommend?

Short Stories in September, Part II: Andreades, Ferris, Fliss and Mulvey

It’s my aim to read as many short story collections as possible in September. After a first three earlier in the month, here are my next four.

 

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades (2022)

It was Susan’s review that first enticed me to read this linked story collection. I’m always intrigued by the use of the first-person plural, though it can have downsides – in trying to be inclusive of the breadth of experiences of the “us,” the content can edge toward generic. I worried things were going that way in the early chapters about girlhood “in the dregs of Queens, New York,” but the more I read the more I admired Andreades’s debut. Each chapter is a fantastic thematic fragment adding up to a glistening mosaic of what it means to be a woman of colour in the USA. Desires and ambitions shift as they move from childhood to adolescence to college years to young adulthood, but some things stay the same: their parents’ high expectations, the pull of various cultures, and near-daily microaggressions.

Our families’ legacies, the histories we’ve inherited: grandparents who never learned to read, U.S.-backed dictatorships, bombs, wars, refugee camps, naval bases, canals, gold, diamonds, oil, missionaries, brain drain, the American Dream.

No matter their zip code or tax bracket, listen as these white people deem us and our families the good immigrants, the hard-working onesnot like the lazy people in this country who are a burden on the system.

The fulcrum is the sudden death of one of their number, Trish, which has repercussions through the second half of the book. It raises questions of mental health and whether friendships will last even when they move beyond Queens.

I especially loved Part Five, about a trip back to the motherland that leaves the brown girls disoriented from simultaneous sensations of connection, privilege and foreignness. “The colonized, the colonizer. Where do we fall?” My individual favourite chapters were “Duty,” about giving up on parentally prescribed medical studies to pursue a passion for art; “Patriotic,” about deciding whether or not to have children; and “Our Not-Reflections,” about age allowing them to understand what their mothers went through when they were new to the country. One critique: I would have omitted the final Part Eight, which is about Covid and death in general; the book didn’t need an update to feel timely. It’s a shame this wasn’t at least longlisted for the Women’s Prize this past year. (New purchase with a book token)  

 

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris (2017)

I’ve read a couple of Ferris’s novels but this collection had passed me by. “More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)” is set in the same office building as Then We Came to the End. Most of the entries take place in New York City or Chicago, with “Life in the Heart of the Dead” standing out for its Prague setting. The title story, which opens the book, sets the tone: bristly, gloomy, urbane, a little bit absurd. A couple are expecting their friends to arrive for dinner any moment, but the evening wears away and they never turn up. The husband decides to go over there and give them a piece of his mind, only to find that they’re hosting their own party. The betrayal only draws attention to the underlying unrest in the original couple’s marriage. “Why do I have this life?” the wife asks towards the close.

Marital discontent and/or infidelity is a recurring feature, showing up in “A Night Out” and “The Breeze,” which presents the different ways a couple’s evening might have gone. I liked this line about the difficulty of overcoming incompatibilities: “Why could she not be more like him and why could he not be more like her?” It seems from my short story reading that there is always one story I would give a different title. Here I would rename “The Valetudinarian” (about a Florida retiree who ends up in a comical health crisis) “They don’t give you a manual” after his repeated catchphrase.

A few of the 11 stories weren’t so memorable, but the collection ends with a bang. “A Fair Price” appears to have a typically feeble male protagonist, frustrated that the man he’s hired to help move his belongings out of a storage unit is so taciturn, but the innocuous setup hides a horrific potential. (Public library)

 

The Predatory Animal Ball by Jennifer Fliss (2021)

These 40 flash fiction stories try on a dizzying array of genres and situations. They vary in length from a paragraph (e.g., “Pigeons”) to 5–8 pages, and range from historical to dystopian. A couple of stories are in the second person (“Dandelions” was a standout) and a few in the first-person plural. Some have unusual POV characters. “A Greater Folly Is Hard to Imagine,” whose name comes from a William Morris letter, seems like a riff on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but with the very wall décor to blame. “Degrees” and “The Thick Green Ribbon” are terrifying/amazing for how quickly things go from fine to apocalyptically bad.

Grief and especially pregnancy loss are repeated elements. In “Yolk,” a woman finds a chicken embryo inside a cracked egg and it brings back memories of her recent stillbirth. In “All Your Household Needs,” a bereaved voice-over artist sympathizes with a child who picks up a stuffed Lucky the Dog whose speech she recorded. In “What Goes with Us,” an unreturned library book is a treasured reminder of a dead partner; “May His Memory Be a Blessing” lists many other such mementoes. Even the title story, whose main character is a mouse, opens with the loss of a loved one and posits compassion from an unexpected source.

It’s hard to get a sense of an author’s overall style from such disparate material, so I was pleased to learn that Fliss is working on her first novel, which I’ll be keen to read.

With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler for the e-copy for review.

 

Hearts & Bones: Love Songs for Late Youth by Niamh Mulvey (2022)

Having read these 10 stories over the course of a few months, I now struggle to remember what many of them were about. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s (young) women’s relationships. “My First Marina,” about a teenager discovering her sexual power and the potential danger of peer pressure in a friendship, is similar to the title story of Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz. In “Mother’s Day,” a woman hopes that a pregnancy will prompt a reconciliation between her and her estranged mother. In “Childcare,” a girl and her grandmother join forces against the mum/daughter, a would-be actress. “Currency” is in the second person, with the rest fairly equally split between first and third person. “The Doll” is an odd one about a ventriloquist’s dummy and repeats events from three perspectives.

I had two favourites: “Feathers” and “Good for You, Cecilia.” In the former, a woman rethinks her relationship with her boyfriend when the 2010 volcanic eruption restricts her to his French flat and she gets chatting with his cleaner. In the latter, a mother and daughter go to watch their daughter/sister’s dance recital in Dublin and witness the fall of a statue of St. Cecilia in a church they stop into. These are all matter-of-fact, somewhat detached stories set in European cities over the last decade or so. None of the protagonists had me particularly emotionally engaged with their plights. Overall, this felt reminiscent of Wendy Erskine’s work (I’ve reviewed Dance Move), but not as original or powerful.

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

Currently reading: Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, Playing Sardines by Michèle Roberts

Up next: The High Places by Fiona McFarlane, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Review Catch-Up: The Swimmers, Black Butterflies, Bi, and On the Scent

I have a preposterous backlog of review copies to finish and write about (I’m going to go ahead and blame buying a house, moving and DIY for my lack of focus and diminished time, as I have done most of this year), but I’ve decided to get on top of it by pulling a quartet off of my set-aside shelf each week for short responses. I always like to feature a variety, so here I have two fiction and two nonfiction selections: novels about assisted dying and the Bosnian War that are a lot funnier and more life-affirming than you might expect, and books about bisexuality and the sense of smell – and the effect of its loss.

 

The Swimmers by Chloe Lane (2020; 2022)

Erin Moore has returned to her family’s rural home for Queen’s Birthday (now a dated reference, alas!), a long weekend in New Zealand’s winter. Not a time for carefree bank holiday feasting, this; Erin’s mother has advanced motor neurone disease and announces that she intends to die on Tuesday. Aunty Wynn has a plan for obtaining the necessary suicide drug; it’s up to Erin to choreograph the rest. “I was the designated party planner for this morbid final frolic, and the promise of new failures loomed. … The whole thing was looking more and more like the plot of a French farce, except it wasn’t funny.”

Lane renders a potentially maudlin situation merely bittersweet through black comedy. Erin isn’t the most endearing narrator because, Disaster Woman-like, she keeps undertaking weird acts of self-sabotage – at 26, she’s blown her first gallery curation opportunity by sleeping with her boss. Still, the picture of a different sort of dysfunctional family and the contrast between an illustrious past (Erin comes from a line of semi-pro swimmers: Aunty Wynn qualified to compete in the Commonwealth Games) and an iffy future make this fairly memorable, if not so much so as the other 2022 The SwimmersJulie Otsuka’s.

Readalikes: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

With thanks to Gallic Books for the proof copy for review.

 

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (2022)

Drawing on her own family history, Morris has crafted an absorbing story set in Sarajevo in 1992, the first year of the Bosnian War. Zora, a middle-aged painter, has sent her husband, Franjo, and elderly mother off to England to stay with her daughter, Dubravka, confident that she’ll see out the fighting in the safety of their flat and welcome them home in no time. But things rapidly get much worse than she is prepared for. Phone lines are cut off, then the water, then the electricity. “We’re all refugees now, Zora writes to Franjo. We spend our days waiting for water, for bread, for humanitarian handouts: beggars in our own city.”

When even the haven of her studio is taken away from her, she’s reduced to the bare bones of existence, with just a few beloved neighbours to keep her spirits up. Her painting, more an obsession than a hobby, keeps her human as she awaits space on a Red Cross convoy. The title has heartrending significance: ‘black butterflies’ are fragments of paper carried on the breeze after the burning of the National Library of Sarajevo, 30 years ago last month. It was especially poignant to be reading this during the war in Ukraine and think about the sorts of daily dangers and deprivation that people face in conflict zones. The pages turned quickly and I was reminded of Girl at War, one of my absolute favourites, as well as The Pianist.

With thanks to Duckworth for the proof copy for review.

 

Bi: The hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality by Julia Shaw (2022)

I’m tying this in with today’s celebration of Bi Visibility Day. Shaw is a criminal psychologist; her third book is a departure for her thematically, but means a lot to her personally. Bisexuality is the largest minority sexuality group, yet bisexuals are less likely to be out because of misconceptions and stereotypes – there are fewer outward signals and less group identification – which can sometimes result in poor mental health. Shaw realized how tricky bi identity was when a German TV show wanted to base a character on her but didn’t know how to make her sexuality obvious to viewers (lingering glances/flirtations involving both men and women? a backstory about a previous relationship with a woman?), and when trying to figure out what to wear to gay bars.

The book aims to situate bisexuality historically and scientifically. The term “bisexual” has been around since the 1890s, with the Kinsey Scale and the Klein Grid early attempts to add nuance to a binary view. Shaw delights in the fact that the mother of the Pride movement in the 1970s, Brenda Howard, was bisexual. She also learns that “being behaviourally bisexual is commonplace in the animal kingdom,” with many species engaging in “sociosexual” behaviour (i.e., for fun rather than out of reproductive instinct). It’s thought that 83% of bisexuals are closeted, mostly due to restrictive laws or norms in certain parts of the world – those seeking asylum may be forced to “prove” bisexuality, which, as we’ve already seen, is a tough ask. And bisexuals can face “double discrimination” from the queer community.

It felt odd to me that a final chapter on bisexual relationships ended up being mostly about threesomes, such that my main question (as she puts it: “what are the problems with the assumed link between bisexuality and non-monogamy?”) only merited four pages. A valuable book, certainly, but one to read for information rather than entertainment or thoughtful prose.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

On the Scent: Unlocking the mysteries of smell – and how its loss can change your world by Paola Totaro and Robert Wainwright (2022)

Totaro (co-author Wainwright is her husband) contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and temporarily lost the ability to smell, prompting her to embark on this investigation into a less-understood sense. One in 10,000 people have congenital anosmia, but many more than that experience it at some point in life (e.g., due to head trauma, or as an early sign of Parkinson’s disease), and awareness has shot up since it’s been acknowledged as a symptom of Covid. For some, it’s parosmia instead – smell distortions – which can almost be worse, with people reporting a constant odour of smoke or garbage, or that some of their favourite aromas, like coffee, were now smelling like faeces instead. Such was the case for Totaro.

She visits fascinating places like the Smell and Taste clinic in Dresden and the University of Reading Flavour Centre. “Sniffin’ sticks” are used to put people’s sense of smell to the test, but it’s notoriously difficult, even for those who haven’t had their senses compromised by illness, to name a smell out of context; people generally don’t score over 50%. That’s one of the major questions the book asks: why it is quite so difficult to identify smells, or describe them in words. Totaro also considers perfume-making, the associations of particular smells (bleach, pine or lemon, depending on your country) with cleanliness, and the potential for multisensory experiences, such as releasing odours during film showings. Lots of interesting topics and stories here, but not as compelling on the whole as The Smell of Fresh Rain.

With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.

 

Best of the 4: Black Butterflies

 

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

20 Books of Summer #11, Review Catch-up, and Wainwright Children’s Picks

Comparing my January–April reading totals with my May–July average, I see that my reading is down 57% over the last few months (at least in terms of number of books finished), and I can only blame the stress and time-consuming processes of moving house and DIY. I feel like I’ve slowed to a crawl through my various challenges, including my 20 Books.

With increasingly apocalyptic news filling my feeds, I find that I simultaneously a) want to retreat into books all the more and b) wonder what the point of all this compulsive reading is. For now, I’m taking as back-up Gretchen Rubin’s motto shared on National Book Lovers Day (“Reading is my tree house and my cubicle, my treadmill and my snow day” – what a perfect summary! It’s playtime, escape, mental exercise, indulgence but also, in some cases, work) and the premise of San Diego philosopher Nick Riggle’s upcoming This Beauty, which I’m reading for an early review: the purpose of life is to participate in and replicate beauty.

 

20 Books of Summer, #11

From the hedgerows: A collection of short stories on the wildlife, places and people of Newbury District by Lew Lewis (2008)

The love and appreciation of natural beauty starts at home, and we are lucky here in West Berkshire to have a very good newspaper that still hosts a nature column (currently by beloved local author Nicola Chester). This collection of Newbury Weekly News articles spans 1979 to 1996, with the majority of the pieces from 1990–5. They were contributed by 17 authors, but most are by Lew Lewis (including under a pseudonym).

If you regularly read the Guardian Country Diary feature, you’ll find the format familiar. The general idea is to pick a natural phenomenon that’s seasonal or timely in some way, and write a short essay on it that incorporates context, personal observation, a political conscience and sometimes whimsical or nostalgic musing. Many pieces are about bird sightings; a few are about plants and insects; others celebrate the unique landscapes we have here, like heath and chalk downland. Some are quaint, like an introduction to “ticking” (birders’ list-keeping).

It was faintly depressing to see that we’ve been noting these habitat and species losses and their causes (generally, intensified agriculture) for over 30 years, and haven’t done enough to reverse them. But there are some good news stories, too, like “Return of the Red Kite,” one of our flagship species. This is basically self-published and could have done with some extra proofreading, but the black-and-white illustrations, most by Richard Allen, are charming. I was so pleased to find this on my library reshelving trolley one day. It’s an important artefact of a nature-lover’s heritage. There should be a follow-up volume or two! (Public library)

 

Review Book Catch-up

Rookie: Selected Poems by Caroline Bird (2022)

I discovered Caroline Bird early last year through In These Days of Prohibition and her latest collection, The Air Year, was one of my favourite reads of 2021. Part of the joy of working my way through this chronological volume was finding the traces of Bird’s later surrealism. Her first collection, Looking through Letterboxes, was written when she was just 14 and published when she was 16, but you’d never guess that from reading these poems of family, fairy tales and unspecified longing. I particularly liked the first stanza of “Passing the Time”:

Thirty paperclip statues on every table in the house

and things are slightly boring without you.

I’ve knitted a multi-coloured jacket for every woodlouse

in the park. But what can you do?

Trouble Came to the Turnip has some cheeky and randy fare, with the title poem offering a beleaguered couple various dubious means of escape. Watering Can pits monogamy and marriage against divorce and the death of love, via some twisted myths and fairy tales (e.g., Narcissus and Red Riding Hood). “Last Tuesday” is a stand-out. The Hat-Stand Union has more of what I most associate with Bird’s verse: dreams and the surreal. “How the Wild Horse Stopped Me” was a favourite. Mostly, I’m glad I own this so I can have access to the material from her two latest collections, but it was also fun to encounter her earlier style. In an afterword, she writes: “I chose poetry because it let me hide and, once hidden, I could be brave, roll my heart in sequins and chuck it out, glittering, into the street.”

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

 

Getting through It: My Year of Cancer during Covid by Helen Epstein (2022)

Given my love of medical memoirs and my recent obsession with Covid chronicles, this was always going to appeal to me. Epstein, an arts journalist and nonfiction author born in Prague and based in Massachusetts, was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in June 2020. She documents the next year or so in a matter-of-fact diary format, never shying away from the details of symptoms, medical procedures and side effects. Her husband Patrick’s e-mail updates sent out to friends and family, and occasional medical reports, fill in the parts she was less clear on due to fatigue and brain fog – including two small strokes she suffered. Surgery was followed by chemo and then the fraught decision of whether to decline brachytherapy (internal radiation). And, of course, all this was happening at a time when people were less able to see loved ones and rely on their regular diversions. The apt cover conjures up the outdoor chaise longue where Epstein would hold court and receive visitors.

In my mind, cancer patients fall into two camps: those who want to read everything they can about their illness so they know what to expect, and those who avoid thinking about it at all costs. For those in the former group, a no-nonsense book like this will be invaluable. I particularly appreciated Epstein’s attention to her husband’s experience, which she had to dig a little deeper to understand, and her realization that having female cancer brought back memories of childhood sexual molestation. She is also candid about how other people’s emotional demands (e.g., recounting a family member’s illness, or expecting effusive gratitude for small thoughtful acts) weighed on her. A forthright Everywoman’s narrative.

With thanks to the author for the free e-copy for review. Full disclosure: We are acquaintances through a Facebook group for book reviewers.

 

Wainwright Children’s Prize shortlist

I’ve now read 4 of 7 books on the Wainwright Prize’s Children’s Nature and Conservation Writing shortlist. I’m unlikely to have a chance to read the other three before the winner is announced unless my library system acquires them quickly. Any of the ones I’ve read would make a deserving winner, but the two I review below really grabbed me by the heartstrings and I would be particularly delighted to see one or the other take this inaugural award.

 

One World: 24 Hours on Planet Earth by Nicola Davies, illus. Jenni Desmond (2022)

It’s one minute to midnight in London. Two Brown sisters are awake and looking at the moon. A journey of the imagination takes them through the time zones to see the natural spectacles the world has to offer: polar bears hunting at the Arctic Circle, baby turtles scrambling for the sea on an Indian beach, humpback whales breaching in Hawaii, and much more. Each spread has no more than two short paragraphs of text to introduce the landscape and fauna and explain the threats each ecosystem faces due to human influence. As the girls return to London and the clock chimes to welcome in 22 April, Earth Day, the author invites us to feel kinship with the creatures pictured: “They’re part of us, and every breath we take. Our world is fragile and threatened – but still lovely. And now it’s the start of a new day: a day when I’ll speak about these wonders, shout them out”.

A lot of research went into ensuring accuracy, and the environmentalist message is clear but not overstated. Fantastic! (Public library)

 

Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, illus. Tom de Freston (2021)

I could never have predicted when I read The Way Past Winter that Hargrave would become one of my favourite contemporary writers. Julia and her parents (and not forgetting the cat, Noodle) are off on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark, a notably long-lived species she’s researching in hopes of discovering clues to human longevity – a cause close to her heart after her own mother’s death with dementia. Julia makes friends with Kin, a South Asian boy whose family run the island laundromat-cum-library. They watch stars and try to evade local bullies together. But one thing Julia can’t escape is her mother’s mental health struggle (late on named as bipolar: “Mum sometimes bounced around like Tigger, and other times she was mopey like Eeyore”). Julia thinks that if she can find the shark, it might fix her mother.

Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. It and murmurations of starlings are visual motifs throughout the book, which has a yellow and black colour scheme. Like One World, it’s as beautifully illustrated as it is profound in its messages. Julia is no annoyingly precocious child narrator, just a believable one who shows us her struggling family and the love and magic that get them through. I could see this becoming a modern children’s classic. (Public library)

The Best Books from the First Half of 2022

Yes, it’s that time of year already! At first I thought I wouldn’t have enough 2022-released standouts to fill a post, but the more I looked through my list the more I realized that, actually, it has been a pretty good reading year. It remains to be seen, of course, how many of these will make it onto my overall best-of year list, but for now, these are my highlights. I made it up to an even 20 by including one that doesn’t release until July. Fiction is winning thus far! I give review excerpts below and link to the full text here or elsewhere.

 

Fiction

Our Wives under the Sea by Julia Armfield: Miri is relieved to have her wife back when Leah returns from an extended deep-sea expedition. Something went wrong with the craft when it was too late to evacuate, though. Chapters alternate between Miri describing their new abnormal and Leah recalling the voyage. As Miri tries to tackle life admin for both of them, she feels increasingly alone. This is a sensitive study of love, grief and dependency. Armfield gives an increasingly eerie story line a solid emotional foundation.

 

These Days by Lucy Caldwell: A beautiful novel set in Belfast in April 1941. We see the Second World War mostly through the eyes of the Bell family – especially daughters Audrey, engaged to be married to a young doctor, and Emma, in love with a fellow female first aider. The evocation of a time of crisis is excellent. The lack of speech marks, fluid shifting between perspectives, and alternation between past and present tense keep the story from seeming too familiar or generic. All of the female characters have hidden depths.

 

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole: In Cole’s debut novel, two aspiring writers meet on a Kentucky college campus and form a romantic connection despite very different backgrounds. There are stereotypes to be overcome as Owen introduces Alma to Kentucky culture and slang. Trump’s election divides families and colleagues. The gentle satire on the pretensions of writing programs is another enjoyable element. Three-dimensional characters, vivid scenes ripe for the Netflix treatment, timely themes and touching relationships: alright!

 

Days of Sand by Aimée de Jongh: This Great Depression-era story was inspired by the work of photographers such as Dorothea Lange. John Clark is following in his father’s footsteps as a photographer, leaving NYC for the Oklahoma panhandle. Locals are suspicious of John as an outsider, especially when they learn he is working to a checklist. Whether a cityscape or the midst of a dust storm, de Jongh’s scenes are stark and evocative. It’s rare for me to find the story and images equally powerful in a graphic novel, but that’s definitely the case here.

 

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine: The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or a moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium. Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. Her writing is blunt and edgy, with no speech marks plus flat dialogue and slang.

 

Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones: Riveting stories of contemporary life in the American South and Midwest. Some have pandemic settings; others are gently magical. All are true to the anxieties of modern careers, marriage and parenthood. Endings elicit a gasp, particularly the audacious inconclusiveness of “Exhaust,” a tense tale of a quarreling couple driving through a blizzard. Worry over environmental crises fuels “Ark,” about a pyramid scheme for doomsday preppers. Nickolas Butler and Lorrie Moore fans will find much to admire.

 

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: This dazzlingly intricate novel blends historical fiction, up-to-the-minute commentary and science-fiction predictions. In 2401, the Time Institute hires Gaspery-Jacques Roberts to investigate a recurring blip in time. Fans of The Glass Hotel will recognize some characters, and those familiar with Station Eleven will find similarities in a pandemic plot that resonates with the Covid-19 experience. How does Mandel do it? One compulsively readable hit after another.

 

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: The aphoristic style of some of Manguso’s previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. So much resonated with me. This is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them.

 

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu: Just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, this linked short story collection imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. All but one story are in the first person, so they feel like personal testimonies. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The focus on illness and bereavement, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner.

 

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: Otsuka’s third novel of the Japanese American experience again employs the first-person plural, as well as the second person – rarer perspectives that provide stylistic novelty. The first two chapters are set at a pool that, for the title swimmers, serves as a locus of escape and safety. On the first page we’re introduced to Alice, whose struggle with dementia becomes central. I admired Otsuka’s techniques for moving readers through the minds of the characters, alternating range with profundity and irony with sadness.

 

French Braid by Anne Tyler: My 17th from Tyler, and easily her best new work in 18 years. It joins my other favourites such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which reveal a dysfunctional family’s quirks through a close look, in turn, at the various members. Mercy is a painter and essentially moves into her studio, but without announcing it, and her husband Robin spends the next 25+ years pretending they still share a home. Other surprises from Tyler this time: a mild sex scene and a gay character. A return to form. Brava!

 

Nonfiction

In Love by Amy Bloom: Bloom’s husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. This achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality as Bloom chronicles their relationship, the final preparations, his assisted suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland, and the aftermath. An essential, compelling read.

 

Everything Is True by Roopa Farooki: Second-person, present-tense narration drops readers right into the life of a junior doctor. In February 2020, Farooki’s sister Kiron died of breast cancer. During the first 40 days of the initial UK lockdown, she continues to talk to Kiron. Grief opens the door for magic realism. There is also wry humour, wordplay, slang and cursing. A hybrid work that reads as fluidly as a novel while dramatizing real events, this is sure to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a bereavement or medical memoir.

 

Body Work by Melissa Febos: A boldly feminist essay collection that explores how autobiographical writing can help one face regrets and trauma and extract meaning from the “pliable material” of memory. “In Praise of Navel Gazing” affirms the importance of women airing their stories of abuse and thereby challenging the power structures that aim to keep victims silent. “A Big Shitty Party” warns of the dangers of writing about real people. “The Return” employs religious language for the transformation writing can achieve.

 

All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt: This poetic memoir about love and loss in the shadow of mental illness blends biography, queer history and raw personal experience. The book opens, unforgettably, in a Liverpool graveyard where Hewitt has assignations with anonymous men. His secret self, suppressed during teenage years in the closet, flies out to meet other ghosts: of his college boyfriend; of men lost to AIDS during his 1990s childhood; of English poet George Manley Hopkins; and of a former partner who was suicidal. (Coming out on July 12th from Penguin/Vintage (USA) and July 14th from Jonathan Cape (UK). My full review is forthcoming for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Poetry

Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury: This tenth collection features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes. 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. There are also playful meetings between historical figures.

 

Some Integrity by Padraig Regan: The sensual poems in this debut collection are driven by curiosity, hunger and queer desire. Flora and foods are described as teasing mystery, with cheeky detail. An unusual devotion to ampersands; an erotic response to statuary; alternating between bold sexuality and masochism to the point of not even wanting to exist; a central essay on the Orlando nightclub shooting and videogames – the book kept surprising me. I loved the fertile imagery, and appreciated Regan’s exploration of a nonbinary identity.

 

Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl: Having read Ruhl’s memoir Smile, I recognized the contours of her life and the members of her family. Cooking and laundry recur: everyday duties mark time as she tries to write and supervises virtual learning for three children. “Let this all be poetry,” she incants. Part 2 contains poems written after George Floyd’s murder, the structure mimicking the abrupt change in focus for a nation. Part 3’s haiku and tanka culminate in a series on the seasons. A welcome addition to the body of Covid-19 literature.

 

Rise and Float by Brian Tierney: Although it tackles heavy subjects like grief and mental health, the collection’s candor and stunning images transform the melancholy into the sublime. Much of the verse is in the first person, building an intimate portrait of the poet and his relationships. A family history of mental illness and electroshock treatment occasions a visit to a derelict psychiatric hospital. Recurring metaphors of holes dramatize a struggle against the void. Tierney’s close attention lends beauty to bleak scenes.

 

Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín: I didn’t realize when I started that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse, I assumed he’d been publishing poetry for decades. There’s a wide range of tone, structures and topics. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background. Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates a witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” Come along on armchair travels. Poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2022 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

Literary Wives Club: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

This has been my first read with the Literary Wives online book club. The other members will also be posting their thoughts this week; we consider four books per year in total.


See also the reviews by:

Kay at What Me Read

Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors

Naomi at Consumed by Ink

 

I wrote a general review of The Sentence in April when it was on the Women’s Prize longlist (it has since advanced to the shortlist). This time I’m focusing on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux. The central question we ask about the books we read for Literary Wives is:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~

There are some unusual aspects to the central marriage in this novel. For one thing, Pollux, a former tribal policeman, was the one to arrest Tookie. For another, although he is a “ceremony man” keeping up Native American rituals (e.g., burning sweetgrass and receiving an eagle corpse from the government to make a fan), he doesn’t believe in ghosts, so Tookie keeps Flora’s haunting of the bookshop from him, as well as from some of her colleagues. For a time, this secret makes Tookie feel like she’s facing the supernatural alone.

Pollux does not, cumulatively, get a lot of page time in the novel, yet I got the sense that he was always there in the background as support. Their relationship is casual and sweet, with lots of banter and a good dollop of sex considering they’re some way into middle age. Clearly, they rely on each other. Their marriage keeps Tookie grounded even when traumatic memories or awful current events rear up.

Now I live as a person with a regular life. A job with regular hours after which I come home to a regular husband. … I live the way a person does who has ceased to dread each day’s ration of time. I live what can be called a normal life only if you’ve always expected to live such a way. If you think you have the right. Work. Love. Food. A bedroom sheltered by a pine tree. Sex and wine.

The thing I knew was that if anything happened to Pollux I would die too. I would be happy to die. I would make sure that I did.

With the latter passage in mind, I did fear the worst when Pollux caught Covid and was hospitalized; I was as relieved as Tookie when he was discharged.

Along with Pollux comes his daughter, Hetta, and her baby son Jarvis. Tookie and Hetta had generally been cool towards each other, but the presence of the baby and the lockdown situation soften things between them. Having never been a maternal sort, Tookie falls completely in love with Jarvis and takes every excuse to babysit him. This gives us a welcome glimpse into another aspect of her character.

I noted a couple of other passages where rituals have practical or metaphorical significance for the central relationship:

At a New Year’s buffet: “a wild rice argument can wreck friendships, kill marriages, if allowed to rage.”

“You let the logs burn long enough so they made a space between them. You gotta keep the fire new. Every piece of wood needs a companion to keep it burning. Now push them together. Not too much. They also need that air. Get them close, but not on top of each other. Just a light connection all the way along. Now you’ll see a row of even flames.”

Pollux is literally instructing Tookie in how to light a fire there, but could just as well be prescribing what makes a marriage work. Connection but a bit of distance; support plus freedom. Their existence as a couple seems to achieve that. They have their individual lives with separate jobs and hobbies, but also a cosy bond that buoys them.


Next book: Red Island House by Andrea Lee in September.