I’m very stingy with my 5-star ratings, so when I give one out you can be assured that a book is truly special. These three are all backlist reads – look out for my Classic of the Month post next week for a fourth that merits 5 stars – that are well worth seeking out. Out of the 50 books I’ve read so far this year, these are far and away the best.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne (1995)
I plucked this Wigtown purchase at random from my shelves and it ended up being just what I needed to lift me out of January’s funk. Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder, “rare, life-changing moments of seeing or hearing things with heightened perception,” is what makes us human. Call it an epiphany (as Joyce did), call it a moment of vision (as Woolf did), call it a feeling of communion with the universe; whatever you call it, you know what he is talking about. It’s that fleeting sense that you are right where you should be, that you have tapped into some universal secret of how to be in the world.
Mayne believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to wonder by encouraging us to pay close attention. His frame of reference is wide, with lots of quotations and poetry extracts; he has a special love for Turner, Monet and Van Gogh and for Rilke, Blake and Hopkins. Mayne was an Anglican priest and Dean of Westminster, so he comes at things from a Christian perspective, but most of his advice is generically spiritual and not limited to a particular religion. There are about 50 pages towards the end that are specifically about Jesus; one could skip those if desired.
The book is a series of letters written to his grandchildren from a chalet in the Swiss Alps one May to June. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, the effect is of a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages. I don’t often feel awake to life’s wonder – I get lost in its tedium and unfairness instead – but this book gave me something to aspire to.
A few of the many wonderful quotes:
“The mystery is that the created world exists. It is: I am. The mystery is life itself, together with the fact that however much we seek to explore and to penetrate them, the impenetrable shadows remain.”
“Once wonder goes; once mystery is dismissed; once the holy and the numinous count for nothing; then human life becomes cheap and it is possible with a single bullet to shatter that most miraculous thing, a human skull, with scarcely a second thought. Wonder and compassion go hand-in-hand.”
“this recognition of my true worth is something entirely different from selfishness, that turned-in-upon-myselfness of the egocentric. … It is a kind of blasphemy to view ourselves with so little compassion when God views us with so much.”
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross (2007)
When she was training to become a doctor in Rhode Island, Montross and her anatomy lab classmates were assigned an older female cadaver they named Eve. Eve taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a published poet, as evident in her lyrical exploration of the attraction and strangeness of working with the remnants of someone who was once alive. She sees the contrasts, the danger, the theatre, the wonder of it all:
“Stacked beside me on my sage green couch: this spinal column that wraps into a coil without muscle to hold it upright, hands and feet tied together with floss, this skull hinged and empty. A man’s teeth.”
“When I look at the tissues and organs responsible for keeping me alive, I am not reassured. The wall of the atrium is the thickness of an old T-shirt, and yet a tear in it means instant death. The aorta is something I have never thought about before, but if mine were punctured, I would exsanguinate, a deceptively beautiful word”
All through her training, Montross has to remind herself to preserve her empathy despite a junior doctor’s fatigue and the brutality of the work (“The force necessary in the dissections feels barbarous”), especially as the personal intrudes on her career through her grandparents’ decline and her plans to start a family with her wife – which I gather is more of a theme in her next book, Falling into the Fire, about her work as a psychiatrist. I get through a whole lot of medical reads, as any of my regular readers will know, but this one is an absolute stand-out for its lyrical language, clarity of vision, honesty and compassion.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
Had I finished this late last year instead of in the second week of January, it would have been vying with Lauren Groff’s Florida for the #1 spot on my Best Fiction of 2018 list.
The title – presumably inspired by both Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, California (“There is no there there”) and the Radiohead song – is no soft pat of reassurance. It’s falsely lulling; if anything, it’s a warning that there is no consolation to be found here. Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least, with alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence as recurring sources of trauma. They have ongoing struggles with grief, mental illness and the far-reaching effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, alternating between the first and third person (plus one second person chapter). As we see them preparing for the powwow, whether to dance and drum, meet estranged relatives, or get up to no good, we start to work out the links between everyone. I especially liked how Orange unobtrusively weaves in examples of modern technology like 3D printing and drones.
The writing in the action sequences is noticeably weaker, and I wasn’t fully convinced by the sentimentality-within-tragedy of the ending, but I was awfully impressed with this novel overall. I’d recommend it to readers of David Chariandy’s Brother and especially Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It was my vote for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize (for the best first book, of any genre, published in 2018), and I was pleased that it went on to win.
Brother by David Chariandy
Canadian author David Chariandy’s second novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Narrator Michael and his older brother Francis grew up in the early 1980s in The Park, a slightly dodgy area of Toronto. Their single mother, Ruth, is a Trinidadian immigrant who worked long shifts as a cleaner to support the family after their father left early on. From the first pages we know that Francis is an absence, but don’t find out why until nearly the end of the book. The short novel is split between the present, as Michael and Ruth try to proceed with normal life, and vignettes from the past, culminating in the incident that took Francis from them 10 years ago.
The title is literal, of course, but also street slang for friends or comrades. Michael looked up to street-smart Francis, who fell in with a gang of “losers and neighbourhood schemers” and got expelled from school at age 18. Francis tried to teach his little brother how to carry himself: “You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time.” Yet the more we hear about Francis staying with friends at a barber shop and getting involved with preparations for a local rap DJ competition, the more his ideal of aloof masculinity starts to sound ironic, if not downright false.
I came into the book with pretty much no idea of what it was about. It didn’t fit my narrow expectations of Canadian fiction (sweeping prairie stories or hip city ones); instead, it reminded me of The Corner by David Simon, We, the Animals by Justin Torres, and Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. It undoubtedly gives a powerful picture of immigrant poverty and complicated grief. Yet the measured prose somehow left me cold.
Brother was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sharp by Michelle Dean
“People have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ … who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.” In compiling 10 mini-biographies of twentieth-century women writers and cultural critics who weren’t afraid to be unpopular, Dean (herself a literary critic) celebrates their feminist achievements and insists “even now … we still need more women like this.” Her subjects include Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and Renata Adler. She draws on the women’s correspondence and published works as well as biographies to craft concise portraits of their personal and professional lives.
You’ll get the most out of this book if a) you know nothing about these women and experience this as a taster session; or b) you’re already interested in at least a few of them and are keen to learn more. I found the Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt chapters most interesting because, though I was familiar with their names, I knew very little about their lives or works. Parker’s writing was pulled from a slush pile in 1914 and she soon replaced P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic. Her famous zingers masked her sadness over her dead parents and addict husband. “This was her gift,” Dean writes: “to shave complex emotions down to a witticism that hints at bitterness without wearing it on the surface.”
Unfortunately, such perceptive lines are few and far between, and the book as a whole lacks a thesis. Chance meetings between figures sometimes provide transitions, but the short linking chapters are oddly disruptive. In one, by arguing that Zora Neale Hurston would have done a better job covering a lynching than Rebecca West, Dean only draws attention to the homogeneity of her subjects: all white and middle-class; mostly Jewish New Yorkers. I knew too much about Sontag and Didion to find their chapters interesting, but enjoyed reading more about Ephron. I’ll keep the book to refer back to when I finally get around to reading Mary McCarthy. It has a terrific premise, but I found myself asking what the point was.
Sharp was published in the UK by Fleet on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
I’d previously enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s two nonfiction books, Sixty Degrees North and The Undiscovered Islands. In his debut novel he returns to Shetland, where he spent some of his growing-up and early adult years, to sketch out a small community and the changes it undergoes over about ten months. Sandy has lived in this valley for three years with Emma, but she left him the day before the action opens. Unsure what to do now, he sticks around to help her father, David, butcher the lambs. After their 90-year-old neighbor, Maggie, dies, Sandy takes over her croft. Other valley residents include Ryan and Jo, a troubled young couple; Terry, a single dad; and Alice, who moved here after her husband’s death and is writing a human and natural history of the place, The Valley at the Centre of the World. (This strand reminded me of Annalena McAfee’s Hame.)
The prose is reminiscent of the American plain-speaking style of books set in the South or Appalachia – Richard Ford, Walker Percy, Ron Rash and the like. We dive deep into this tight-knit community and its secrets. It’s an offbeat blend of primitive and modern: the minimalism of the crofting life contrasts with the global reach of Facebook, for instance. When Ryan and Jo host a housewarming party, all the characters are brought together at about the halfway point, and some relationships start to shift. Overall, though, this is a slow and meandering story. Don’t expect any huge happenings, just some touching reunions and terrific scenes of manual labor. David is my favorite character, an almost biblical patriarch who seems “to live in a kind of eternal present, looking neither forward nor backward but always, somehow, towards the land.”
Tallack has taken a risk by writing in phonetic Shetland dialect. David’s speech is particularly impenetrable. The dialect does rather intrude; the expository passages are a relief. I’ve been to Shetland once, in 2006. This quiet story of belonging versus being an outsider is one to reread there some years down the line: I reckon I’d appreciate it more on location.
The Valley at the Centre of the World was published by Canongate on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.