Tag Archives: death

Reviews: de Jongh, Eipe, Parker and Scull

Today’s roundup includes a graphic novel set during the U.S. Dust Bowl, a Dylan Thomas Prize-shortlisted poetry collection infused with Islamic imagery, a book about adaptive technologies for the disabled, and a set of testimonies from the elderly and terminally ill.

 

Days of Sand by Aimée de Jongh (2021; 2022)

[Translated from the Dutch by Christopher Bradley]

Dust can drive people mad.

This terrific Great Depression-era story was inspired by the real-life work of photographers such as Dorothea Lange who were sent by the Farm Security Administration, a new U.S. federal agency, to document the privations of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. John Clark, 22, is following in his father’s footsteps as a photographer, leaving New York City to travel to the Oklahoma panhandle. He quickly discovers that struggling farmers are believed to have brought the drought on themselves through unsustainable practices. Many are fleeing to California. The locals are suspicious of John as an outsider, especially when they learn that he is working to a checklist (“Orphaned children”, “Family packing car to leave”).

“The best photos have an instant impact. Right away, they grab our attention. They tell a story, or deliver a message. The question is: how do you make that happen?” one of his employers had asked. John grows increasingly uncomfortable with being part of what is essentially a propaganda campaign when he develops a personal fondness for Cliff, a little boy who offers to be his assistant, and Betty, a pregnant widow whose runaway horse he finds. The deprivation and death he sees at close hand bring back memories of his father’s funeral four years ago.

Whether a cityscape or the midst of a dust storm, de Jongh’s scenes are stark and evocative. Each chapter opens with a genuine photograph from the period (de Jongh travelled to the USA for archival and on-the-ground research thanks to a grant from the Dutch Foundation for Literature), and some panes mimic B&W photos the FSA team took. It’s rare for me to find the story and images equally powerful in a graphic novel, but that’s definitely the case here.

With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe (2021)

This debut poetry collection is on the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist. I’ve noted that recent winners – such as Lot by Bryan Washington and Luster by Raven Leilani – have in common a distinctive voice and use of language, which chimes with what Thomas was known for (see my recent review of Under Milk Wood) and clarifies what the judges are looking for.

The placement of words on the page seems to be very important in this volume – spread out or bunched together, sometimes descending vertically, a few in grey. It’s unfortunate, then, that I read an e-copy, as most of the formatting was lost when I put it on my Nook. The themes of the first part include relationships, characterized by novelty or trauma; tokens of home experienced in a new land; myths; and nature. Section headings are in Malayalam.

The book culminates in a lengthy, astonishingly nimble abecedarian in which a South Asian single father shepherds his children through English schooling as best he can while mired in grief over their late mother. This bubbles over in connection with her name, Noor, followed by a series of “O” apostrophe statements, some addressed to God and others exhorting fellow believers. Each letter section gets progressively longer. I was impressed at how authentically the final 30-page section echoes scriptural rhythms and content – until I saw in the endnotes that it was reproduced from a 1997 translation of the Quran, and felt a little cheated. Still, “A is for…” feels like enough to account for this India-born poet’s shortlisting. (The Prize winner will be announced on Thursday the 12th.)

With thanks to Midas PR for the free e-copy for review.

 

Hybrid Humans: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Man and Machine by Harry Parker (2022)

I approached this as a companion to To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell and that is precisely what I found, with Parker’s personal insight adding a different angle to the discussion of how technology corrects and transcends flawed bodies. Parker was a captain in the British Army in Afghanistan when an IED took his legs. Now he wears that make him roughly 12% machine. “Being a hybrid human means expensive kit – you have to pay for the privilege of leading a normal life.” He revisits the moments surrounding his accident and his adjustment to prostheses, and meets fellow amputees like Jack, who was part of a British medical trial on osseointegration (where titanium implants come out of the stump for a prosthesis to attach to) that enabled him to walk much better. Other vets they know had to save up and travel to Australia to have this done because the NHS didn’t cover it.

Travelling to the REHAB trade fair in Karlsruhe, Parker learns that disability, too, can be the mother of invention. Virtual reality and smartphone technology are invaluable, with an iPhone able to replace up to 11 single-purpose devices. Yet he also encounters disabled people who are happy with their lot and don’t look to tech to improve it, such as Jamie, who’s blind and relies only on a cane. And it’s not as if tools to compensate for disability are new; the book surveys medical technologies that have been with us for decades or even centuries: from glass eyes to contact lenses; iron lungs, cochlear implants and more.

Pain management, PTSD, phantom limbs, foreign body rejection, and deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease are other topics in this wide-ranging study that is at the juncture of the personal and political. “A society that doesn’t look after the vulnerable isn’t looking after anyone – I’d learnt first-hand that we’re all just a moment from becoming vulnerable,” Parker concludes. I’ll hope to see this one on next year’s Barbellion Prize longlist.

With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.

 

Regrets of the Dying: Stories and Wisdom that Remind Us How to Live by Georgina Scull (2022)

A medical crisis during pregnancy that had her minutes from death was a wake-up call for Scull, leading her to rethink whether the life she was living was the one she wanted. She spent the next decade interviewing people in her New Zealand and the UK about what they learned when facing death. Some of the pieces are like oral histories (with one reprinted from a blog), while others involve more of an imagining of the protagonist’s past and current state of mind. Each is given a headline that encapsulates a threat to contentment, such as “Not Having a Good Work–Life Balance” and “Not Following Your Gut Instinct.” Most of her subjects are elderly or terminally ill. She also speaks to two chaplains, one a secular humanist working in a hospital and the other an Anglican priest based at a hospice, who recount some of the regrets they hear about through patients’ stories.

Recurring features are not spending enough time with family and staying too long in loveless or unequal relationships. Two accounts that particularly struck me were Anthea’s, about the tanning bed addiction that gave her melanoma, and Millicent’s, guilty that she never went to the police about a murder she witnessed as a teenager in the 1930s (with a NZ family situation that sounds awfully like Janet Frame’s). Scull closes with 10 things she’s learned, such as not to let others’ expectations guide your life and to appreciate the everyday. These are readable narratives, capably captured, but there isn’t much here that rises above cliché.

With thanks to publicist Claire Morrison and Welbeck for the free copy for review.

 

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

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)

Four favourites:

  • “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)

Five favourites:

  • “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.

Short Classics Week of #NovNov: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Can you believe it’s the last week of Novellas in November?! I’m hosting our final theme, short classics, and my first review is of a strange, mesmerizing 1950s novella.

We hope some of you will join in with our last buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). I’m looking forward to rereading it – in one sitting, if I can manage it – on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning and will review it on Thursday. This list of 10 favourite classic novellas I put together last year might give you some more ideas of what to read this week.

 

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954)

[146 pages]

I’d heard about this via its recent Daunt Books reissue and was attracted to the plague theme. The spark for the story was a real-life event in France in 1951, but Comyns takes imaginative liberties. In 1911, a Warwickshire village is overtaken by calamity: first a flood and then a mysterious sickness. The first line – “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window” – sets up a jolly, fable-like atmosphere as the Willoweed family go rowing through their garden. And yet there’s death all over the place. The multitude of drowned animals soon cedes to a roll call of human casualties. Some deaths are self-inflicted and others result from rapid illness, but all are gruesome. The general pattern of the sickness seems to be stomach pains, fits, bleeding and death, all within a few days. At first, we don’t know if what we’re looking at is a medical phenomenon or a case of mass hysteria. Either is rich fodder for fiction.

Ebin Willoweed writes it all up for the newspapers, leaving his motherless daughters to do the hard work of cleaning up from the flood damage and looking after their little brother. Meanwhile, Ebin’s brutal, selfish mother presides over the household like some ogre in a fairy tale. The title (which comes from Longfellow) makes it clear that even those who survive this epidemic will not escape totally unscathed.

Comyns is entirely unsentimental in this, her third novel; those characters who are not horrible are typically passive, and the humour is very black indeed. It’s illuminating to observe how each figure responds to tragedy and what their priorities are. In general, though, it’s not a rosy picture of human nature. While I was initially reminded of H.E. Bates’s The Darling Buds of May and Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, this feels darker. There is some casual racism and the morbidness probably won’t be for everyone, but I remained gripped, wondering how on earth this would conclude. I liked it enough to try more by Comyns – my library has a copy of the brilliantly titled Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, but I’m also open to other suggestions. (Secondhand purchase)

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Any short classics on your reading pile?

Six Degrees of Separation: What Are You Going Through to No Saints Around Here

I’ve become an occasional Six Degrees of Separation post-er, when the mood strikes me and/or I get a flash of inspiration. This month we began with What Are You Going Through, which I reviewed back in October 2020. (See Kate’s opening post.)

Between that, The Friend and A Feather on the Breath of God, Sigrid Nunez has quickly become one of my favourite contemporary authors. I have two more of her novels on the shelf to read soon, one from my birthday haul.

In What Are You Going Through, the narrator is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. However, I summed up the message as “Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy,” and noted “a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure.”

 

#1 One of the stand-out books from my 2021 reading so far has been The Inevitable, which is about assisted dying. The case studies are wrenching but compassionately told. Katie Engelhart explores the nuances of situations, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context.

 

#2 As the saying goes, if there’s one thing inevitable besides death, it’s taxes. And if you’re a U.S. citizen, you will remain accountable to the IRS until the day you die, no matter where you live. (Eritrea is the only other country that requires expatriates to fill in tax returns.) I’ve now gotten my U.S. tax forms down to a science, keeping a list of pointers and previous years’ forms as scanned files so that I just have to plug in the year’s numbers, put zeroes in all the important boxes (since I’ve already paid income tax in the UK), and send it off. A matter of an hour or two’s work, rewarded by a G&T.

But I distinctly remember the Junes when I would spend days muddling through byzantine IRS forms, so I am very grateful that an offer for this e-book arrived in my inbox via my blog contact form in 2017: U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans by Olivier Wagner. It goes through each form, often line by line. Three cheers for actually helpful self-help guides!

 

#3 Another expat tip that I found extremely useful, small as it might seem, is that “quite” means something different in American vs. British English. To an American it’s a synonym for “very”; to the guarded Brits, it’s more like “rather.” I have the Julian Barnes essay collection Letters from London to thank for this vital scrap of etymological knowledge.

 

#4 Unsurprisingly, I have built up a small library of books about understanding the English and their ways. In the How to Be a Brit omnibus, collecting three short volumes from the 1940s–70s, George Mikes (a Hungarian immigrant) makes humorous observations that have, in general, aged well. His mini-essays on tea, weather and queuing struck me as particularly apt. I would draw a straight line from this through Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island to the Very British Problems phenomenon.

 

#5 As I was preparing to fly to England for the first time for my study abroad year, one of the authors who most whetted my appetite for British travel was Susan Allen Toth, whose trilogy of UK-themed memoirs-with-recommendations began with My Love Affair with England – included in one of my Landmark Books in My Life posts. I’m rereading one of the other three now.

 

#6 Toth is a very underrated author, I feel. I’ve read most of her memoirs and have a short nonfiction work of hers on my pile for #NovNov. Her most recent book is No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days (2014), in which she chronicled the last 18 months of her husband James’s life, as she and an army of caregivers coped with his decline from Parkinson’s disease. Toth gets the tone just right: although she is honest, she is never melodramatic; although she often feels sorry for herself, she also recognizes how lucky she has been, not just to have done a good job of looking after James, but to have had him in her life at all.

 

I’ve gone full circle from one story of caregiving to another, via death, taxes and Englishness. The starting and ending books are reminders that you never fully know what another person is going through; all we can do is our best while cutting others some slack.

 


Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is our buddy read for week 4 of #NovNov, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

The Best Books from the First Half of 2021

Hard to believe we’ve already crossed the midpoint of the year. My top 20 releases of 2021 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (fiction is dominating this year!), are below. I link to those I’ve already reviewed in full here or on Goodreads:

 

Fiction

Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.

 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…

 

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.

 

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.

 

In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.

 

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

 

 

Nonfiction

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

 

The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.

 

Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.

 

A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for TLS.)

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: Lamott’s best new essays in nearly a decade. The central theme is how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst. One key thing that has changed for her is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. In thinking of marriage, she writes about friendship, constancy, and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time.

 

A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creative writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Coming out on July 13th from the University of Michigan Press. My first review for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.

 

 

Poetry

Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Coming out on August 3rd from Graywolf Press. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, the body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

An Embarrassment of Riches at the (Digital) Hay Festival 2021

There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.

 

Richard Flanagan

Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.

The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.

Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!

Three take-aways:

  • The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
  • Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
  • “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”

 

Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen

All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.

Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.

 

Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani

Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”

Three take-aways:

  • Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
  • While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
  • Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.

 

Maggie Shipstead

Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.

Three take-aways:

  • Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
  • She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
  • While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.

 

Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.

Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.

 

Julianne Pachico

Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.

 

Brit Bennett

Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).

Three take-aways:

  • “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
  • “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
  • An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.

 

Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti

I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”

Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.

Three take-aways:

  • A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
  • Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
  • A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.

The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die by Katie Engelhart

Why, she wanted to know, was I so interested in the subject?

“Why isn’t everyone?” I asked.

The fact that I read a lot more books about death than the average person is something I attribute not to some morbid curiosity, but to pragmatism. As the title of Canadian reporter and documentary filmmaker Katie Engelhart’s book makes clear, this is the one subject none of us can avoid indefinitely, so why not learn about and understand it as much as possible? The Inevitable focuses on the controversial matter of assisted dying, also known as assisted suicide, euthanasia, or physician-assisted death. It’s a topic that’s already come up in my reading a couple of times this year: in the Dutch context of That One Patient by Ellen de Visser, and as a key part of the narrative in Darke Matter by Rick Gekoski.

Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Ten states plus Washington, D.C. have assisted dying laws, sparked by Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1994. In California, the author follows Dr. Lonny Shavelson for a month, observing all the meticulous regulations surrounded a physician-assisted death: patients with a terminal diagnosis and less than six months to live have to complete multiple forms, give many signatures, deliver oral testimony, and be able to drink the fatal concoction by themselves (whereas in other countries doctors can administer lethal injections). And if, when the time comes, a patient is too far gone to give spoken consent, the procedure is cancelled.

Other chapters consider specific cases that are not generally covered by current legislation but can drive people to seek assisted suicide: the ravages of old age, chronic degenerative illnesses, dementia, and severe mental illness. Each of these is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile.

  • Meet Avril Henry, a former Exeter University professor in her eighties, now living alone with a failing body but no specific diagnosis that would qualify her for AD. Pain has long since outweighed pleasure in her life, so she illegally imports Nembutal from a veterinary supplier in Mexico and makes a careful plan for what will happen with her body, home, and possessions after she takes the drug in the bathtub.
  • Meet Maia Calloway, a 39-year-old former filmmaker confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. Her medicines cost $65,000 a year, not all covered by Medicare, and she can no longer rely on the patience of her boyfriend, who acts as her carer. She decides to raise the money to travel from Taos to a Swiss assisted dying clinic.
  • Meet Debra, a 65-year-old widow so rapidly declining with dementia that she knows she has to make her arrangements at once. She contacts the Final Exit Network, which gives advice and equipment (e.g. a nitrogen tank) that can make a death look unexplained or like a standard suicide.
  • Meet Adam, a 27-year-old in daily distress from OCD, anxiety, and depersonalization disorder. Though he’s lobbied for the inclusion of mental illness, he doesn’t qualify for AD under Canada’s laws. In 2017 he starts a Facebook livestream from a hotel room, intending to take poison off-screen. He loses his nerve this time, but is determined to try again.

These stories are so wrenching, but so compassionately told. Engelhart explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. Hers is a voice of reason and empathy. She mostly stays in the background, as befits a journalist, but occasionally emotional responses or skepticism come through – Exit International’s Philip Nitschke, vilified as a “Dr. Death” like Jack Kevorkian, is too much of a maverick for her.

And while her sympathy for the AD cause is evident, she also presents opposing arguments: from hospice doctors, from those afraid that the disabled will be pushed into assisted suicide to free up resources, from the family members of her subjects, and from those who have witnessed abuses of the system. There are those who frame this as a question of rights, and others who recognize a rare privilege; some who scorn the notion of escape, and others who speak of dignity and the kindness one would show a dying pet. The book is a vital contribution to an ongoing debate, with human stories at its heart.


With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review. The Inevitable was published in the UK on March 11th and is available from St. Martin’s Press in the USA.

Book Serendipity, Mid-March to Early May 2021

In early April, the publisher Canongate ran a newsletter competition for one reader to win a stack of their recent releases. All you had to do was reply with your favourite word. On Twitter they gave a rundown of the most popular responses. Turning up several times each were petrichor, mellifluous, and oleaginous. Most frequent of all was serendipity: I was one of 15 to submit it! And one of those entries, but not mine, won. Anyway, fun little story there.

I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.

The following are in roughly chronological order.

  • A white peacock is mentioned in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, both of which were on the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
  • Speaking of that Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, four of the eight were paperbacks with French flaps.

 

  • The main character takes ballet lessons in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez.

 

  • Mermaids! A big theme in The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (of course) and The Republic of Love by Carol Shields, but they’re also mentioned in the opening story of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans and are main characters in “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the anthology Close Company.

  • The Brothers Grimm story about brothers who have been transformed into swans and their sister who sews shirts out of nettles to turn them back is reworked in The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin and used as a metaphor in Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott.

 

  • An electric carving knife is mentioned as a means of suicide (yipes!) in The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

 

  • A discussion of the distinction between the fear of dying and the fear of being dead in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart.

 

  • Two novels in a row in which an older man is appalled by the squalor of his young girlfriend’s apartment, and she calls him “daddy” during sex (double yipes!), made the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist: Luster by Raven Leilani and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
  • Architect husbands in The Push by Ashley Audrain and The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (and, last year, in A Celibate Season by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields), as well as a female architect as a main character in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan earlier this year.

 

  • The next-to-last essay in the Trauma anthology quotes from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I was also reading at the time.

 

  • A mention of the eels in London absorbing cocaine from the Thames in the final essay in the Trauma anthology; I then moved right on to the last 40 pages of Nobody Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood and the same bizarre fact was mentioned. A week and a half later, there it was again, this time in Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic.

 

  • A mention of sailors’ habit of getting tattoos of swallows in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell (who has a swallow tattoo, even though he’s not a sailor) and Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt.
  • A father and teenage child wander an unfamiliar city and enter a sex shop together (yipes yet again!) in Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio and Ten Days by Austin Duffy.

 

  • A mention of the same University of Virginia study in which people self-administered electric shocks to alleviate the boredom of sitting alone with their thoughts in Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.

 

  • Basho’s poetry and George Monbiot’s Feral are both cited in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell and Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

 

  • A dead sister named Mattie in Consent by Annabel Lyon and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.
  • A young Black female protagonist and the same family dynamic (the mother committed suicide and the father is in the Marines/Navy) in The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Luster by Raven Leilani.

 

  • On the same night, I read about two pets encountering snow for the first time: a cat in Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox and a dog in Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.

 

  • A character is described as being as wide as they are tall in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox.
  • A character is known as Seventh in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and the story “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the Close Company anthology. Plus, there’s Septimus in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which I’m reading concurrently with those two.

 

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?