Learning How to Be Sad via Books by Susan Cain and Helen Russell
There’s been a lot of sadness in my life over the past few months. If there’s a key lesson I learned from the latest work by these authors, who are among the best self-help writers out there, it’s that denying sadness is the worst thing we could do. Accepting sadness helps us to be compassionate towards others and to acknowledge but ultimately let go of generational pain. There are measures we can take to mitigate sadness – a focus of the second half of Russell’s book – but it can’t be avoided altogether. Alongside the classics of bereavement literature I have been rereading, I found these two books to be valuable companions in grief.
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain (2022)
Cain’s Quiet must be one of the best-known nonfiction books of the millennium. It felt like vindication for introverts everywhere. Bittersweet is a little more nebulous in strategy but, boiled down, is a defence of the melancholic personality, one of the types identified by Aristotle (also explored in Richard Holloway’s The Heart of Things). Sadness is not the same as clinical depression, Cain rushes to clarify, though the two might coexist. Melancholy is often associated with creativity and sensitivity, and can lead us into empathy for others. Suffering and death seem like things to flee, but if we sit with them, we will truly be part of the human race and, per the “wounded healer” archetype, may also work toward restoration.
A love for minor-key music, especially songs by Leonard Cohen, is what initially drew Cain to this topic, but there are other autobiographical seeds: the deaths of many ancestors, including her rabbi grandfather’s entire family, in the Holocaust; her difficult relationship with her controlling mother, who now has dementia; and the deaths from Covid of both her brother, a hospital doctor, and her elderly father in 2020.
Through interviews and attendance at conferences and other events, she draws in various side topics, like the longing that prompts mysticism (Kabbalah and Sufism), loving-kindness meditation, an American culture of positivity that demands “effortless perfection,” ways the business world could cultivate empathy, and how knowledge of death makes life precious. (The only chapter I found less than essential was one about transhumance – the hope of escaping death altogether. Mark O’Connell has that topic covered.) Cain weaves together her research with autobiographical material naturally. As a shy introvert with melancholy tendencies, I found both Quiet and Bittersweet comforting.
With thanks to Viking (Penguin) for the proof copy for review.
How to Be Sad: The Key to a Happier Life by Helen Russell (2021)
A reread, though I only skimmed the first time around – my tiny points of criticism would be that the book is a tad long – the print in the paperback is really rather small – and retreads some of the same ground as Leap Year (e.g., how exercise and culture can contribute to a sense of wellbeing). I read that just last year, after enjoying The Year of Living Danishly with my book club. She’s a reliable nonfiction author; I’d liken her to a funnier Gretchen Rubin.
Russell has an appealingly self-deprecating style and breezily highlights statistics alongside personal anecdotes. Here she faces sources of sadness in her life head-on: her younger sister’s death from SIDS and the silence that surrounded that loss; her parents’ divorce and her sense of being abandoned by her father; struggles with eating disorders and alcohol and exercise addiction; and relationship trials, from changing herself to please boyfriends to undergoing IVF with her husband, T (aka “Legoman”), and adjusting to life as a mother of three.
As in her other self-help work, she interviews lots of experts and people who have gone through similar things to understand why we’re sad and what to do about it. I particularly appreciated chapters on “arrival fallacy” and “summit syndrome,” both of which refer to a feeling of letdown after we achieve what we think will make us happy, whether that be parenthood or the South Pole. Better to have intrinsic goals than external ones, Russell learns.
She also considers cultural differences in how we approach sadness: for instance, Russians relish sadness and teach their children to do the same, whereas the English, especially men, are expected to bury their feelings. Russell notes a waning of the rituals that could help us cope with loss, and a rise in unhealthy coping mechanisms. Like Cain, she also covers sad music (vs. one of her interviewees prescribing Jack Johnson as a mood equalizer). There are lots of laughs to be had, but the epilogue can’t fail to bring a tear to the eye. (Public library)
I found this quote from the Russell a handy summary of both authors’ premise. Dr Lucy Johnstone says:
“The key question when encountering someone with mental or emotional distress shouldn’t be, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but rather, ‘What’s happened to you?’”
Suffering is coming for all of us, so why not arm yourself to deal with it and help others through? That’s always been one of my motivations for reading widely: to understand other people’s situations and prepare myself for what the future holds.
Could you see yourself reading a book about sadness?
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Door (#MARM)
It’s my fifth year participating in the annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by indomitable Canadian blogger Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years for this challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips; and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her some love?
Like the Beatles, she’s worked in so many different genres and styles that I don’t see how anyone could say they don’t like her – you just haven’t explored her oeuvre deeply enough. Although she’s best known for her fiction, she started off as a poet, with a whole five collections published in the 1960s before her first novel appeared. I’d previously read her Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 and Dearly, my top poetry read of 2020.
The Door (2007) was at that point her first poetry release in 12 years and features a number of the same themes that permeate her novels and nonfiction: memory, writing, ageing, travel and politics. I particularly like the early poems where she reinhabits memories of childhood and early adulthood, often through objects. Such artifacts are “pocketed as pure mementoes / of some once indelible day,” she writes in “Year of the Hen.”
These are followed by a trilogy about the death of the family’s pet cat, Blackie. “We get too sentimental / over dead animals. / We turn maudlin,” she acknowledges in “Mourning for Cats,” yet “Blackie in Antarctica” injects some humour as she remembers how her sister kept the cat’s corpse in the freezer until she could come home to bury it. Also on the lighter side is a long “where are they now?” update for the Owl and the Pussycat.
There are also meta reflections on poetry, slightly menacing observations on the weather (an implacable, fate-like force) and the seasons (autumn = hunting), virtual visits to the Arctic, mild complaints about the elderly not being taken seriously, and thoughts on duty.
Four in a row muse about war – the Vietnam War in particular, I think? “The Last Rational Man” is a sinister standout, depicting a figure who is doomed under Caligula’s reign. Whoever she may have had in mind when she wrote this, it’s just as relevant 15 years later.
In the final, title poem, which appears to be modelled on the Seven Ages of Man, a door is a metaphor for life’s transitions and, ultimately, for death.
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It’s dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings closed.
Apart from a few end rhymes, Atwood relies more on theme than on sonic technique or form. That, I think, makes her poetry accessible to those who are new to or suspicious of verse. Happy birthday, M.A., and thank you for your literary wisdom and innovation! (Little Free Library)
Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell & What Remains? by Rupert Callender
I raced to finish all the September releases on my stack by the 30th, thinking I’d review them in one go, but that ended up being far too unwieldy. There was way too much to say about each of these excellent books (the first two pairs are here and here; Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder is still to come, probably on Wednesday). I’ve mentioned before that the month’s crop of nonfiction was about either books or death. Here’s one of each, linked by their ‘remain’ titles. Both:
Remainders of the Day: More Diaries from The Bookshop, Wigtown by Shaun Bythell
It’s just over five years since many of us were introduced to Wigtown and the ups and downs of running a bookshop there through Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. (I’ve also reviewed the follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller, which was an enjoyable read for me during a 2019 trip to Milan, and 2020’s Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.)
This third volume opens in February 2016. As in its predecessors, each monthly section is prefaced by an epigraph from a historical work on bookselling – this time R. M. Williamson’s 1904 Bits from an Old Bookshop. It’s the same winning formula as ever: the nearly daily entries start with the number of online orders received and filled, and end with the number of customers and the till takings for the day. (The average spend seems to be £10 per customer, which is fine in high tourist season but not so great in November and December when hardly anyone walks through the door.) In between, Bythell details notable customer encounters, interactions with shop helpers or local friends, trips out to buy book collections or go fishing, Wigtown events including the book festival, and the occasional snafu like the boiler breaking during a frigid November or his mum being hospitalized with a burst ulcer.
Reading May Sarton’s Encore recently, I came across a passage where she is reading a fellow writer’s journal (Doris Grumbach’s Coming into the End Zone):
I find hers extremely good reading, so I cannot bear to stop. I am reading it much too fast and I think I shall have to read it again. I know that I must not swallow it whole. There is something about a journal, I think, that does this to readers. So many readers tell me that they cannot put my journals down.
I’ve heard Zadie Smith say the same about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: it’s just the stuff of prosaic, everyday life and yet she refers to his memoirs/autofiction as literary crack.
I often read a whole month’s worth of entries at a sitting. I can think of a few specific reasons why Bythell’s journals are such addictive reading:
- “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” Small-town settings are irresistible for many readers, and by now the fairly small cast of characters in Bythell’s books feel like old friends. Especially having been to Wigtown myself, I can picture many of the locations he writes about, and you get the rhythm of the seasons and the natural world as well as the town’s ebb and flow of visitors.
- (A related point) You know what to expect, and that’s a comforting thing. Bythell makes effective use of running gags. You know that when Granny, an occasional shop helper from Italy, appears, she will complain about her aches and pains, curse at Bythell and give him the finger. Petra’s belly-dancing class (held above the shop) will inevitably be poorly attended. If Eliot is visiting, he is sure to leave his shoes right where everyone will trip over them. Captain the cat will be portly and infuriating.
- What I most love about the series is the picture of the life cycle of books, from when they first enter the shop, or get picked up in his van, to when rejects are dropped at a Glasgow recycling plant. What happens in the meantime varies, with once-popular authors falling out of fashion while certain topics remain perennial bestsellers in the shop (railways, ornithology). There’s many a serendipitous moment when he comes across a book and it’s just what a customer wants, or buys a book as part of a lot and then sells it online the very next day. New, unpriced stock is always quick to go.
Also of note in this volume are his break-up with Amazon, after his account falls victim to algorithms and is suspended, the meta moment where he signs his first book contract with Profile, and the increasing presence of the Bookshop Band, who moved to Wigtown later in 2017. Bythell doesn’t seem to get much time to read – it’s a misconception of the bookselling life that you do nothing but read all day; you’d be better off as a book reviewer if that’s what you want – but when he does, it’s generally an intense experience: E.M. Forster’s sci-fi novella The Machine Stops (who knew it existed?!), Barbara Comyns’s A Touch of Mistletoe, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis.
I’m torn as to whether I hope there will be more year by year volumes filling in to the present day. As Annabel noted, the ‘where they are now’ approach in the Epilogue rather suggests that he and his publisher will leave it here at a trilogy. This might be for the best, as a few more pre-Covid years of the same routines could get old, though nosey parkers like myself will want to know how a confirmed bachelor turned into a family man…
Some favourite lines:
“Quiet day in the shop; even the cat looked bored.” (31 October)
“The life of the secondhand bookseller mainly involves moving boxes from one place to another, and trying to make them fit into a small space, like some sort of awful game of Tetris.”
(10 February and 15 March are great stand-alone entries that give a sense of what the whole is like. There are a lot of black-and-white photos printed amid the text in the first month; it’s a shame these don’t carry on through.)
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
What Remains?: Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking by Rupert Callender
Call me morbid or call me realistic; in the last decade and a half I have read a lot of books about death, including terminal illness and bereavements. I’ve even read several nonfiction works by American mortician Caitlin Doughty. But I’ve not read anything quite like punk undertaker Rupert Callender’s manifesto about modern death and how much we get wrong in our conceptualization and conversations. It was poignant to be reading this in the weeks surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s death – a time when death got more discussion than usual, yes, but when there was also some ridiculous pomp that obscured the basic human facts of it.
Callender is not okay with death, and never has been. When he was seven, his father died of a heart attack at age 63. His 1970s Edinburgh upbringing was shattered and his mother, who he has no doubt was doing her best, made a few terrible mistakes. First, a year before, she’d reassured him that his father wasn’t going to die. Second, she didn’t make him attend the funeral. (I still wish my mother had made me go back to tour my late grandmother’s house one final time when I was seven; instead, I stayed behind and played on a Ouija board with my cousins.) Third, she soon sent Callender away to boarding school, which left him feeling alone and betrayed. And lastly, when she died of cancer when he was 25, she had planned every detail of her funeral – whereas he believes that is a task for the survivors.
An orphan in his late twenties, Callender came across The Natural Death Handbook and it sealed his future. He’d been expelled from school and blown his inheritance; acid house culture had given him a sense of community. Now he had a vocation. The first funeral he coordinated was for a postman named Barry. The fourth was a suicide. Their first child burial was one of his partner’s daughter’s classmates.
Over the next two decades, he and his (now ex-)wife Claire based Totnes’ The Green Funeral Company on old-fashioned values and homespun ceremonies. They oppose the overmedicalization of death and the clinical detachment of places like crematoria. Callender is vehemently anti-embalming – an intrusive process that involves toxic substances. They encourage the bereaved to keep the body at home for the week before a funeral, if they feel able (ice packs like you’d use in a picnic cool bag will work a treat), and to be their own pallbearers to make the memory of the funeral day a physical one. He performs the eulogies himself, and they use cardboard coffins.
This is a slippery work for how it intersperses personal stories with polemic and poetic writing. Despite a roughly chronological throughline, it feels more like a thematic set of essays than a sequential narrative. Callender has turned death rituals into both performance art (including at festivals and in collaboration with The KLF) and political protests (e.g., a public funeral he conducted for a homeless man who died of exposure, the third such death in his town that year). While he doesn’t shy away from the gruesome realities of dealing with corpses, he always brings it back to fundamentals: matter is what we are, but who we were lives on in others’ loving memories. Death rituals plug us into a human lineage and proclaim meaning in the face of nothingness. Whether you’ve seen/read it all or never considered picking up a book about death, I recommend Callender’s sui generis approach.
Some favourite lines:
“[The practice of having official pallbearers] is all part of the emotional infantilising encouraged by the funeral industry, all part of being turned into an audience at one of the most significant moments in your family history, instead of being empowered as a family and a community.”
“each death we experience contains every death we have ever lived through, Russian dolls of bereavement waiting to be unpacked.”
“Only once you are dead can the full arc of your life be clearly seen, and telling that story out loud and truthfully to the people who shared it is a powerful social act that both binds us together and place us within our culture.”
With thanks to Chelsea Green for the proof copy for review.
And as a bonus, given that today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the USA, here’s an excerpt from my Shelf Awareness review of another book that came out last month:
No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies: A Lyric Essay by Julian Aguon
An indigenous human rights lawyer, Aguon is passionate about protecting his homeland of Guam, which is threatened by climate change and military expansion. His tender collage of autobiographical vignettes and public addresses inspires activism and celebrates beauty worth preserving. The U.S. Department of Defense’s plan to site more Marines and firing ranges on Guam will destroy more than 1,000 acres of limestone forest—home to endemic and endangered species, including the Mariana eight-spot butterfly. Aguon has been a lead litigator in appeals rising all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rejecting fatalism, he endorses peaceful resistance. Two commencement speeches, poems, a eulogy and an interview round out the varied and heartfelt collection.
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 ones—not 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
Four for #WITMonth: Jansson, Lamarche, Lunde and Vogt
I’ve managed four novels for this year’s Women in Translation month: a nostalgic, bittersweet picture of island summers poised between childhood and old age; a brief, impressionistic account of domestic violence and rape; the third in a series looking at how climate change and species loss reverberate amid family situations; and a visceral meditation on women’s bodies and relationships. Two of these were review copies from the recently launched Héloïse Press, which “champions world-wide female talent”.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972; 1974)
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]
It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.
This was only the second time I’ve read one of Jansson’s books aimed at adults (as opposed to five from the Moomins series). Whereas A Winter Book didn’t stand out to me when I read it in 2012 – though I will try it again this winter, having acquired a free copy from a neighbour – this was a lovely read, so evocative of childhood and of languid summers free from obligation. For two months, Sophia and Grandmother go for mini adventures on their tiny Finnish island. Each chapter is almost like a stand-alone story in a linked collection. They make believe and welcome visitors and weather storms and poke their noses into a new neighbour’s unwanted construction.
Six-year-old Sophia, based on Jansson’s niece of the same name, is precocious and opinionated, liable to change her mind in an instant. In “The Cat,” one of my favourite stand-alone bits, she’s fed up with their half-feral pet who kills lots of birds and swaps him for a friend’s soppy lap cat, but then regrets it. She’s learning that logic and emotion sometimes contradict each other, which becomes clearer as she peppers Grandmother with questions about religion and superstition.
As is common to Jansson’s books, there’s a melancholy undercurrent here.
Everything was fine, and yet everything was overshadowed by a great sadness. It was August, and the weather was sometimes stormy and sometimes nice, but for Grandmother, no matter what happened, it was only time on top of time, since everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.
Sophia’s mother died, and although her grandmother has the greater presence, Papa is also around, dealing with practicalities in the background. Death stalks around the edges, reminding Grandmother of her mortality through bouts of vertigo that have her grabbing for her heart medication. On just the second page we have this memento mori:
“When are you going to die?” the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”
And so it doesn’t feel like our concern either; the focus is on the now, on these beautiful little moments of connection across the generations – like in “Playing Venice,” when Grandmother stays up all night rebuilding Sophia’s model city that was washed away by the rain. (Public library)
The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche (2014; 2022)
[Winner of an English PEN Award; translated from the French by Katherine Gregor]
In a hypnotic monologue, a woman tells of her time with a violent partner (the man before, or “Manfore”) who thinks her reaction to him is disproportionate and all due to the fact that she has never processed being raped two decades ago. When she goes in for a routine breast scan, she shows the doctor her bruised arm, wanting there to be a definitive record of what she’s gone through. It’s a bracing echo of the moment she walked into a police station to report the sexual assault (and oh but the questions the male inspector asked her are horrible).
The novella opens with an image that returns in dreams but is almost more a future memory of what might have been: “I went down into a ravine and, at the bottom, found a dead woman. She was lying in a shroud, on a carpet of fallen leaves.” I read this in one sitting – er, yoga session – and it has stayed in my mind in intense flashes like that and the flounce of her red dress on the summer day that turned into a nightmare. At an intense 70 pages, this reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s concise autofiction (I’ve reviewed Happening and I Remain in Darkness). An introduction by Dr Dominique Carlini-Versini contextualizes the work by considering the treatment of rape in contemporary French women’s writing.
The Memory of the Air will be published on 26 September. With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.
The Last Wild Horses by Maja Lunde (2019; 2022)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley]
The third in Lunde’s “Climate Quartet,” with its recurring elements of migration, shortages and environmental collapse. Always, though, the overall theme is parent–child relationships and the love that might be the only thing that keeps us going in the face of unspeakable challenges. Here she returns to the tripartite structure of The History of Bees (much my favourite of the three): a historical strand, a near-contemporary one, and a dystopian future story line. The link between the three is Przewalski’s horses (aka takhi).
In the early 1880s, Mikhail Alexandrovich Kovrov, assistant director of St. Petersburg Zoo, is brought the hide and skull of an ancient horse species assumed extinct. Although a timorous man who still lives with his mother, he becomes part of an expedition to Mongolia to bring back live specimens. In 1992, Karin, who has been obsessed with Przewalski’s horses since encountering them as a child in Nazi Germany, spearheads a mission to return the takhi to Mongolia and set up a breeding population. With her is her son Matthias, tentatively sober after years of drug abuse. In 2064 Norway, Eva and her daughter Isa are caretakers of a decaying wildlife park that houses a couple of wild horses. When a climate migrant comes to stay with them and the electricity goes off once and for all, they have to decide what comes next. This future story line engaged me the most.
I appreciated some aspects: queer and middle-aged romances, the return of a character from The End of the Ocean, the consideration across all three plots of what makes a good mother. However, the horses seemed neither here nor there. There are also many, many animal deaths. Perhaps an unsentimental attitude is necessary to reflect past and future values, and the apparent cruelty of natural processes, but it limits the book’s appeal to animal lovers. Maybe the tone fits the Norwegian prose, which the translator describes as lean.
The fourth book of the quartet, publishing in Norway next month, is called something like The Dream of a Tree; a focus on trees would be a draw for me. After the disappointment of Books 2 and 3, I’m unsure whether I want to bother with the final volume, but it makes sense to do so, if only to grasp Lunde’s full vision. (Public library)
What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the German by Caroline Waight]
Vogt’s Swiss-set second novel is about a tight-knit matriarchal family whose threads have started to unravel. For Rahel, motherhood has taken her away from her vocation as a singer. Boris stepped up when she was pregnant with another man’s baby and has been as much of a father to Rico as to Leni, the daughter they had together afterwards. But now Rahel’s postnatal depression is stopping her from bonding with the new baby, and she isn’t sure this quartet is going to make it in the long term.
Meanwhile, Rahel’s sister Fenna knows she’s pregnant but refuses a doctor’s care. When she comes to stay with Rahel, she confides that the encounter with her partner, Luc, that led to conception was odd, rough; maybe not consensual. And all this time, the women’s mother, Verena, has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. All three characters appear to be matter-of-factly bisexual; Rahel and Fenna’s father has long been out of the picture, replaced in Verena’s affections by Inge.
As I was reading, I kept thinking of the declaration running through A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: “This is a female text.” Vogt’s vision is all breasts and eggs, genitals actual and metaphorical. I loved the use of food in the novel: growing up, the girls cherished “silly nights” when their mother prepared an egg feast and paired it with a feminist lecture on reproduction. Late on, there’s a wonderful scene when the three main characters gorge on preserved foodstuffs from the cellar and share their secrets. (Their language is so sexually frank; would anyone really talk to their mother and siblings in that way?!) As in the Lunde, the main question is what it means to be a mother, but negotiating their relationships with men stretches the bonds of this feminine trio. One for fans of Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney.
With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.
Review Catch-Up: Capildeo, Castillo, Nagamatsu & Wedlich
A second catch-up for April. Today I have a sprightly poetry collection about history, language and nature; a linked short story collection that imagines funerary rituals and human meaning in a post-pandemic future; and a wide-ranging popular science book about the diverse connotations and practical uses of slime. As a bonus, I have a preview essay from a forthcoming collection about how reading promotes empathy and social justice.
Like a Tree, Walking by Vahni Capildeo (2021)
Capildeo is a nonbinary Trinidadian Scottish poet and the current University of York writer in residence. Their fourth collection is richly studded with imagery of the natural world, especially birds and trees. “In Praise of Birds” makes a gorgeous start:
“In praise of high-contrast birds, purple bougainvillea thicketing the golden oriole. … In praise of grackles quarrelling on the lawn. / In praise of unbeautiful birds abounding in Old Norse, language of scavenging ravens, thought and memory, a treacherous duo”
and finds a late echo in “In Praise of Trees”: “If I could have translated piano practice into botany, the lichen is that Mozart phrase my left hand trialled endlessly.”
The title section (named after a moment from the book of Mark) draws on several numbered series – “Walk #2,” “Nocturne #1,” “Lullaby 4,” and so on – that appeared in a pamphlet they published last year. These are not uncomplicated idylls, though. Walks might involve dull scenery and asthma-inducing dust, as well as danger: “If nobody has abducted you, I’ll double back to meet you. … Before raper-man corner and the gingerbread house.” Lullabies wish for good sleep despite lawnmowers and a neighbour shooting his guns. There’s more bold defiance of expectations in phrases like “This is the circus for dead horses only”.
Language is a key theme, with translations from the French of Eugène Ionesco, and of Pierre de Ronsard into Trini patois. There are also dual-language erasure poems after Dame Julian of Norwich (Middle English) and Simone Weil (French). Much of the work is based on engagement with literature, or was written in collaboration with performers.
“Death is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out. The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you! Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out. Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee, helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.” (from “Odyssey Response”)
“Windrush Reflections” impresses for its research into the situation of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. It’s one of a number of long, multipart pieces, some of them prose poems. The verse relies mostly on alliteration and anaphora for its sonic qualities. Along with history, there is reflection on current events, as in “Plague Poems.” Experiences of casual racism fuel one of my favourite passages:
“the doorbell was ringing / the downstairs american oxford neighbours / wanted to check / by chatting on the intercom / if i was doing terrorism / i was doing transcriptions” (from “Violent Triage”)
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)
“Things are bad in every generation. But we still have to live our life.”
This linked short story collection was one of my most anticipated books of the year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an Octavia E. Butler level of the latter that I can handle. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, it imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. In the first story, Cliff is on the ground at the start of the Arctic plague, which emerges from a thawing Siberia (the same setup as in Under the Blue!), where his late daughter, Clara, had been part of a research group that discovered a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal girl they named Annie.
The virus is highly transmissible and deadly, and later found to mostly affect children. In the following 13 stories (most about Asian Americans in California, plus a few set in Japan), the plague is a fact of life but has also prompted a new relationship to death – a major thread running through is the funerary rites that have arisen, everything from elegy hotels to “resomation.” In the stand-out story, the George Saunders-esque “City of Laughter,” Skip works at a euthanasia theme park whose roller coasters render ill children unconscious before stopping their hearts. He’s proud of his work, but can’t approach it objectively after he becomes emotionally involved with Dorrie and her son Fitch, who arrives in a bubble.
All but one of these stories are in the first person, so they feel like intimate testimonies of how a pandemic transforms existence. Almost all of the characters have experienced a bereavement, or are sick themselves. Relatives or acquaintances become protagonists in later stories. For instance, in “Pig Son,” Dorrie’s ex, David, is a scientist growing organs for transplantation. Bereavement coordinator Dennis and his doctor brother Bryan narrate #5 and #8, respectively. Six years on, Cliff’s wife Miki takes their granddaughter on a space mission. My other two favourites were “Through the Garden of Memory,” in which patients on a plague ward build a human pyramid and plot a sacrifice, and “Songs of Your Decay,” about a researcher at a forensic body farm who bonds with her one live donor over rock music.
Some stories are weaker or less original than others, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The focus on illness and death, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner for me. I’d be especially likely to recommend it to fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Russell.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (2021)
[Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu]
This is just the sort of wide-ranging popular science book that draws me in. Like Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a work I’ve had many opportunities to recommend even to those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, it incorporates many weird and wonderful facts about life forms we tend to overlook. Wedlich, a freelance science journalist in Germany, starts off at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where she seeks a sample of the “primordial slime” collected by the HMS Challenger in 1876. “It seems to be an unwritten rule of horror: slime sells!” she remarks – from H. P. Lovecraft to Ghostbusters, it has provoked disgust. Jellyfish, snails, frogs and carnivorous plants – you’re in for a sticky tour of the natural world.
The technical blanket term for slimy substances is “hydrogels,” which are 99% water and held together by polymers. Biological examples have been inspiring new technologies, like friction reducers (e.g. in fire hoses) modelled on fish mucus, novel adhesives to repair organs and seal wounds, and glue traps to remove microplastics. Looking to nature to aid our lives is nothing new, of course: Wedlich records that slugs were once used to lubricate cart wheels.
The book branches off in a lot of directions. You’ll hear about writers who were spellbound or terrified by marine life (Patricia Highsmith kept snails, while Jean-Paul Sartre was freaked out by sea creatures), the Victorian fascination with underwater life, the importance of the microbiome and the serious medical consequences of its dysfunction, and animals such as amphibians that live between land and water. At times it felt like the narrative jumped from one topic to another, especially between the biological and the cultural, without following a particular plan, but there are enough remarkable nuggets to hold the interest.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
I was delighted to be sent a preview pamphlet containing the author’s note and title essay of How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo, coming from Atlantic in August. This guide to cultural criticism – how to read anything, not just a book – is alive to the biased undertones of everyday life. “Anyone who is perfectly comfortable with keeping the world just as it is now and reading it the way they’ve always read it … cannot be trusted”. Castillo writes that it is not the job of people of colour to enlighten white people (especially not through “the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic” – war, genocide, tragedy, etc.); “if our stories primarily serve to educate, console and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers”. This is bold, provocative stuff. I’m sure to learn a lot.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Three on a Theme (and #ReadIndies): Nonfiction I Sponsored Last Year
Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.
Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:
This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist
A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.
This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.
Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)
Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills
I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”
The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.
As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)
- “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
- “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
- “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
- “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.
Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury
It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.
For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.
I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)
- “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
- “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
- “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
- “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
- My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)
“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”
Stay strong, trees!
Sponsored any books, or read any from indie publishers, recently?
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
I consider myself an Ann Patchett fan, having read eight of her books by now. Although she’s better known for her novels, I have a slight preference for her nonfiction – Truth and Beauty, her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy; and her two collections of autobiographical essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and now These Precious Days, which made it onto my Best of 2021 list last month. Compared to the previous volume, the essays here, though no less sincere and thoughtful, are more melancholy. The preoccupation with death and drive to simplify life (“My Year of No Shopping,” “How to Practice”) seem appropriate for Covid times.
The opening essay, “Three Fathers,” gives wry portraits of her father and her two stepfathers, contrasting their careers, her relationship with each, and their deaths. In a final piece before the epilogue, she notes the bittersweet privilege of her membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters – new members are only inducted to replace senior ones, for each of whom she receives a death notice in the mail. Memento mori are everywhere; “The human impulse is to look for order, but there isn’t any. People come and go. When you try to find your place among all the living and dead, the numbers are unmanageable.”
The long title essay, first published in Harper’s, is about her stranger-than-fiction friendship with Tom Hanks’s personal assistant, Sooki Raphael (her painting of Patchett’s dog Sparky adorns the cover). They first made contact after Patchett read an early copy of Hanks’s short story collection, gave it a nice endorsement, and then interviewed him at the D.C. stop on his book tour. Sooki had recurrent pancreatic cancer; Patchett’s husband Karl, a doctor, got her into a medical trial in Nashville and she lived with them throughout her treatment, including during Covid. There are so many twists to this story, so many moments when it might have faltered. Patchett is well aware of the unlikelihood and uses it to comment on her own plots, and the fact that sometimes what she thinks a novel is about ends up being far from the truth.
Patchett also expresses her appreciation of other authors (“Eudora Welty, an introduction,” “Reading Kate DiCamillo”), looks back to her young adulthood (“The First Thanksgiving,” “The Paris Tattoo”) and explores her other key relationships: her ever-youthful mother is the subject of “Sisters,” she celebrates a childhood friend in “Tavia,” and her worry over her 16-years-older husband fuels “Flight Plan” (about his amateur pilot hobby) and “The Moment Nothing Changed” (about his heart attack scare). Many of the shorter pieces first appeared in other publications or anthologies; a few verge on throwaway if I’m being harsh (did we need the essays on Snoopy and knitting?).
But it’s the approach that distinguishes the work as a whole: a clear eye on herself and others; honesty and deep emotion that never tip into mawkishness. I also enjoyed the little glimpses into her everyday domestic life, as well as her work behind the scenes at Parnassus Books. The one essay that meant the most to me, though, was “There Are No Children Here,” which matter-of-factly covers everything I’d ever like to say or hear about childlessness. At their best, Patchett’s books are not just pleasant reads but fond companions on the journey of life, and that’s how I felt about this one. (Susan included it on her list of comfort reading, too.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.