Book Serendipity, Mid-December 2022 to Mid-February 2023
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
My biggest overall coincidence set this time was around Korean culture, especially food:
- A demanding Korean/American mother (“Umma”) in Sea Change by Gina Chung, Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
- In the Chung and Zauner, she has eyebrows tattooed on.
- In the Chung and Sterling, there’s also a mall setting.
- Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin was set in South Korea and mentioned a lot of the same cultural factors and foods. KIMCHI (which I’ve never had) was inescapable in these four books.
And the rest…
- The concept of Satan as “the enemy” in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer, two 2023 memoirs I reviewed for Foreword Reviews.
- A mention of the Newsboys (my favourite Christian rock band when I was a teenager) in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and, of all places, Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (the context: a list of songs with “Born” in the title; theirs is called – you guessed it! – “Born Again”).
- Two Moores in my stack at once: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore.
- A chapter in The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore is called “Fight Night” and I was reading the early pages of Fight Night by Miriam Toews at the same time.
- A story in Birds of America by Lorrie Moore is called “Real Estate” and I was reading Real Estate by Deborah Levy at the same time.
- The Virgil quote “there are tears at the heart of things” and the theme of melancholy link Bittersweet by Susan Cain and The Heart of Things by Richard Holloway.
- A character who stutters in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale.
- (Werther’s) butterscotch candies are mentioned in Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro, and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- A mother who loves going to church in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.
- The metaphor of a girl trapped in a block of marble ready to have her identity carved out in Sea Change by Gina Chung and Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle.
- When I read a short story about a landmine-detecting rat in Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle, I knew it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered that very specific setup. It took some digging, but I found out the other was in Attrib. by Eley Williams.
- Shane McCrae, whose forthcoming memoir Pulling the Chariot of the Sun I was also reading, is a named poetic influence/source in More Sky by Joe Varrick-Carty.
- I’m sure that after the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Door I encountered another poem about a frozen cat … but can’t now find it for the life of me.
- A character named Marnie in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- Cape Verdean immigrants in the Boston area, then and now, in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish.
- Someone swaps green tea for coffee in Bittersweet by Susan Cain and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- A half-French, half-Asian protagonist in a novella translated from the French: A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery and Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.
- A (semi-)historical lesbian couple as a subject of historical fiction in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Gordon.
- A lesbian couple with a ten-year age gap breaks up because the one partner wants a baby and the other does not in My Mother Says by Stine Pilgaard and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- After I specifically read three Frost Fairs books … 18th-century frolics on the frozen Thames were mentioned in The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph.
- As I was reading The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph, I saw him briefly mentioned in How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- From one 139-page book about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often taking in temples) to another: I followed up A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery with How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- Persimmon jam is mentioned in Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin and How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- A brave post-tragedy trip to a mothers and babies group ends abruptly when people are awkward or rude in All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- As I was reading What We Talk about when We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver, I encountered a snippet from his poetry as a chapter epigraph in Bittersweet by Susan Cain.
- Sexologist Havelock Ellis inspired one of the main characters in The New Life by Tom Crewe and is mentioned in passing in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Book Serendipity, November to December 2021
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. This used to be a quarterly feature, but to keep the lists from getting too unwieldy I’ve shifted to bimonthly.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- The received wisdom that, in a medical school interview, when asked why you want to become a doctor, you should NOT say “because I want to help people” turns up in The Cure for Good Intentions by Sophie Harrison and Head First by Alastair Santhouse.
- The fact that long-time couples don’t use each other’s first names anymore is mentioned in The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos and The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici.
- A rare and thus precious letter from a father in Generations by Lucille Clifton and The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos.
- The fact that woodpeckers will eat songbird chicks was mentioned in Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates and Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian.
- Reading two books with covers featuring a partial head-on face at the same time: Taste by Stanley Tucci and Behind the Mask by Kate Walter.
- The fact that some of a baby’s cells remain within the mother even after she’s given birth is mentioned in The End We Start From by Megan Hunter and Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black.
- The author’s body is described as a conundrum in Conundrum by Jan Morris and Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black.
- The potoo (a bird like a nightjar) is the subject of an essay in World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and a poem in The Store-House of Wonder and Astonishment by Sherry Rind (coming out in January 2022).
- Reading a second memoir this year by an English woman whose partner works for Lego in Denmark: first was A Still Life by Josie George, then The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell.
- A mention of the disorienting experience of going into a cinema while it’s still light and then coming out to find it dark in Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason and then in the 2022 novel Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield.
- A detailed account of making a Christmas cake appears in Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, read late in the year, and the Santa Rosa trilogy by Wendy McGrath, read early in the year.
- After Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living in November, I read a proof copy of a February 2022 essay collection called Cost of Living, by Emily Maloney, in December.
- Surviving Home by Katerina Canyon has a poem entitled “No More Poems about My Father” while The Kids by Hannah Lowe has a poem (“The River”) that opens with the line “Not another poem about my father”.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
My Most Memorable Backlist Reads of 2021
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or decades ago. These 19 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2021 posts (fiction and nonfiction), make up the top 15% of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
(The three books not pictured were read electronically or from the library.)
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighbourhoods of the Bay Area in California, this is a complex, confident debut novel that throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. The characters shine and the dialogue feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as jurors until close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. I was instantly immersed, whether in a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or on a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: David is back on Spain’s Costa Brava, where he and his wife Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. This is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage, and a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez: From the little I know of Nunez, this seems close to autofiction, especially in terms of her parents. Identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life makes sense, and this speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. It cemented her as one of my favourite authors.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world, this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. It’s an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Obsessed with Lolita since she was a teenager, Russell decided to tell the teenage girl’s side of the story. She uses a dual timeline to great effect, creating an utterly immersive novel – as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written, and the ultimate #MeToo story.
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning.
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.
Lot by Bryan Washington: The musical equivalent might be a mixtape blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Drug dealers, careworn immigrants, and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these 13 stories. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: I was so impressed by this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more. A perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.
The Air Year by Caroline Bird: I read this with a big smile on my face, delighting in the clever and playful poems. The impermanence of relationships is a recurring theme. Dreams and miscommunication are also common elements, and lists grow increasingly absurd. I particularly liked where structure creates meaning, e.g. the mise en abyme of “Dive Bar.”
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of its nest. He makes elegant use of connections and metaphors; he’s so good at scenes, dialogue, and emotion – a truly natural writer.
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle: From first migrant in February to last in June, the author traced the D.C. spring of 1945 mostly through the birds that he saw. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook. For me this was an ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: This collection of essays spans decades and lots of African countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. Kapuściński saw many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. I appreciated how he never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences. One of the few best travel books I’ve read.
Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer: Lehrer has endured dozens of surgeries for spina bifida. Her touching family memoir is delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and a miniature art gallery, filled with reproductions of her paintings. This inaugural Barbellion Prize winner is not to be missed.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self.
Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity.
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy: We all fail to listen properly sometimes, for various reasons. A New York Times journalist, Murphy does a lot of listening to her interview subjects. She also talks with representatives of so-called listening careers. This is a short, interesting, and genuinely helpful self-help book.
Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams: Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was in New York City on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. In the months that followed he pondered suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God. He cautions against labelling the Other as Evil and responding with retribution. A superb book-length essay.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favourites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Snow Falling on Cedars and The Cost of Living.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
(I’ll be back on the 27th with Love Your Library, then I have various year-end superlatives and statistics posts going through the 31st.)
Novellas in November Wrap-Up
Last year, our first of hosting Novellas in November as an official blogger challenge, we had 89 posts by 30 bloggers. This year, Cathy and I have been simply blown away by the level of participation: as of this afternoon, our count is that 49 bloggers have taken part, publishing just over 200 posts and covering over 270 books. We’ve done our best to keep up with the posts, which we’ve each been collecting as links on the opening master post. (Here’s mine.)
Thank you all for being so engaged with #NovNov, including with the buddy reads we tried out for the first time this year. We’re already thinking about changes we might implement for next year.
A special mention goes to Simon of Stuck in a Book for being such a star supporter and managing to review a novella on most days of the month.
Our most reviewed books of the month included new releases (The Fell by Sarah Moss, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, Assembly by Natasha Brown, and The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery), our four buddy reads, and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.
Some authors who were reviewed more than once (highlighting different works) were Margaret Atwood, Henry James, Elizabeth Jolley, Amos Oz, George Simenon, and Muriel Spark.
Of course, novellas are great to read the whole year round and not just in November, but we hope this has been a good excuse to pick up some short books and appreciate how much can be achieved with such a limited number of pages. If we missed any of your coverage, let us know and we will gladly add it in to the master list.
See you next year!
Nonfiction Week of #NovNov: Short Memoirs by Lucille Clifton, Alice Thomas Ellis and Deborah Levy
It’s nonfiction week of Novellas in November, which for me usually means short memoirs (today) and nature books (coming up on Wednesday). However, as my list of 10 nonfiction favorites from last year indicates, there’s no shortage of subjects covered in nonfiction works of under 200 pages; whether you’re interested in bereavement, food, hospitality, illness, mountaineering, nature, politics, poverty or social justice, you’ll find something that suits. This week is a great excuse to combine challenges with Nonfiction November, too.
We hope some of you will join in with our buddy read for the week, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). At a mere 85 pages, it’s a quick read. I’ve been enjoying learning about her family history and how meeting her teacher was the solution to her desperate need to communicate.
My first three short nonfiction reads of the month are all in my wheelhouse of women’s life writing, with each one taking on a slightly different fragmentary form.
Generations: A Memoir by Lucille Clifton (1976)
After her father’s death, Clifton, an award-winning poet, felt compelled to delve into her African American family’s history. Echoing biblical genealogies, she recites her lineage in a rhythmic way and delivers family anecdotes that had passed into legend. First came Caroline, “Mammy Ca’line”: born in Africa in 1822 and brought to America as a child slave, she walked north from New Orleans to Virginia at age eight, became a midwife, and died free. Mammy Ca’line’s sayings lived on through Clifton’s father, her grandson: she “would tell us that we was Sayle people and we didn’t have to obey nobody. You a Sayle, she would say. You from Dahomey women.” Then came Caroline’s daughter, Lucy Sale, famously the first Black woman hanged in Virginia – for shooting her white lover. And so on until we get to Clifton herself, who grew up near Buffalo, New York and attended Howard University.
The chapter epigraphs from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” call into question how much of an individual’s identity is determined by their family circumstances. While I enjoyed the sideways look at slavery and appreciated the poetic take on oral history, I thought more detail and less repetition would have produced greater intimacy.
Reissued by NYRB Classics tomorrow, November 9th, with a new introduction by Tracy K. Smith. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Home Life, Book Four by Alice Thomas Ellis (1989)
For four years, Ellis wrote a weekly “Home Life” column for the Spectator. Her informal pieces remind me of Caitlin Moran’s 2000s writing for the Times – what today might form the kernel of a mums’ blog. In short, we have a harried mother of five trying to get writing done while maintaining a household – but given she has homes in London and Wales AND a housekeeper, and that her biggest problems include buying new carpet and being stuck in traffic, it’s hard to work up much sympathy. These days we’d say, Check your privilege.
The sardonic complaining rubbed me the wrong way, especially when the subject was not finding anything she wanted to read even though she’d just shipped four boxes of extraneous books off to her country house, or using noxious sprays to get rid of one harmless fly, or a buildup of rubbish bags because they’d been “tidying.” These essays feel of their time for the glib attitude and complacent consumerism. It’s rather a shame they served as my introduction to Ellis, but I think I’d still give her fiction a try. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)
In the space of a year, Levy separated from her husband and her mother fell ill with the cancer that would kill her. Living with her daughters in a less-than-desirable London flat, she longed for a room of her own. Her octogenarian neighbor, Celia, proffered her garden shed as a writing studio, and that plus an electric bike conferred the intellectual and physical freedom she needed to reinvent her life. That is the bare bones of this sparse volume, the middle one in an autobiographical trilogy, onto which Levy grafts the tissue of experience: conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her.
It’s hard to convey just what makes this brilliant. The scenes are everyday – set at her apartment complex, during her teaching work or on a train; the dialogue might be overheard. Yet each moment feels perfectly chosen to reveal her self, or the emotional truth of a situation, or the latent sexism of modern life. “All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world,” she writes, and it’s that quality of attention that sets this apart. I’ve had mixed success with Levy’s fiction (though I loved Hot Milk), but this was flawless from first line to last. I can only hope the rest of the memoir lives up to it. (New 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 nonfiction on your reading pile?
My (Not the) Booker Prize Reading
A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.
Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.
The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.
There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.
As for the other five on the shortlist…
- I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
- I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*
- I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
- I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
- Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:
He had a masculinity.
His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.
He held seminars and wore red socks.
To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.
The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.
I swooned in admiration of him.
Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.
In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:
Flames by Robbie Arnott
This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.
A favorite passage:
“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.
See Susan’s review for a more enthusiastic response.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)
Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)
The other three books on the shortlist are:
- Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
- Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
- Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.
(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)
Have you read something from the (Not the) Booker shortlist(s)? Any predictions for next week?
Three Reads for Women in Translation Month 2018
An offer of the latest Latin American import from Charco Press prompted me to scour my shelves and see what other books I might add for #WITMonth. I dug out two novella-length books I’d bought secondhand over the past year to make it a trio. My rating for all:
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
[Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein]
Leda is a 47-year-old teacher on holiday in southern Italy. She mostly sits on the beach, minding her own business, but still gets drawn into the minor daily dramas of a large Neapolitan family. One woman is pregnant; another has a small child named Elena who is devastated at losing her doll. Their mother–daughter dynamic takes Leda back to the time when she abandoned her own daughters and didn’t see them for three years. She temporarily found it impossible to reconcile motherhood with her career and her general sense of herself. Leda sees herself as part of a “chain of mute or angry women” – “I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother.”
I was definitely on board for the memories of motherly guilt. Where Ferrante lost me was when Leda steals the doll the child left behind and takes it up to her room to care for it – washing it, buying it new clothes, etc. Every time she sets out to give the doll back or at least leave it somewhere it will be found, she finds another excuse to put it off. Leda herself is unsure why she’s fixated on the doll; “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” she says early on.
Most likely the doll could be interpreted as a symbol of Leda’s desire to be part of a functional family, to get a second chance at perfection with her daughters. But the book was a little too strange for me, and I never really engaged with the Neapolitan characters. After this and a skim of My Brilliant Friend a couple years back, I doubt I’ll pick up anything else by Ferrante. The themes and style of this one reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.
“Life can have an ironic geometry. Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me. I didn’t think the city could contain life forms different from those I had known as a child, violent or sensually lazy, tinged with sentimental vulgarity or obtusely fortified in defense of their own wretched degradation. I didn’t even look for them, those forms, in the past or in a possible future. I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo
[Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe]
Fish Soup contains two novellas (one of them, Sexual Education, was previously unpublished) separated by a set of seven short stories, and marks the first time the Colombian author Margarita García Robayo’s work has appeared in English. I especially liked the title story, in which a widower starts to smell his dead wife Helena’s fish soup in the bar that he owns and goes to investigate, all the while mixing up his dreams and memories with what’s really happening.
My other favorite piece was the opening novella, Waiting for a Hurricane, in which the narrator longs for escape from her seaside home, wanting nothing more than to be a “foreigner.” She starts a law degree but gives it up to become an air hostess, making flights to and from Miami and elsewhere. From her childhood onward, Gustavo has been a major presence in her life, teaching her to prepare fish and telling her stories, but there’s an uncomfortable element to their relationship that’s never really addressed. The mixture of quirky happenings and darker material reminded me of Swallowing Mercury, while the cancer theme of the story “Like a Pariah” recalls Hair Everywhere.
One of my frequent issues with short fiction is a preponderance of inconclusive endings that make you wonder what the point could be. I experienced that a few times with this collection, especially at the close of Waiting for a Hurricane. Judging by the title, though, the main message I drew from the novella is that you can’t just go around waiting for momentous things to happen to you, for your ‘real’ life to start; you have to recognize that this is life, here and now: in storytelling, in spicy stews, in everyday moments with friends and family.
With thanks to Charco Press for the free copy for review.
Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran
[Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley]
In 1994 Xinran, a Chinese journalist who later moved to London, met a woman whose story captured her imagination. Shu Wen received word that her husband, Kejun, had died just months into their marriage. A doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, he’d been sent into Tibet in the 1960s after its ‘liberation’. With no details or body to confirm his demise, though, Wen refused to believe Kejun was gone, and traveled to Tibet to find him. She stayed there for over 30 years – more than half her life – living with a Tibetan family and adjusting to their culture and rituals as she sought word of her husband. The gender roles surprised her: men did the sewing and women had multiple husbands. It was a land of lamas and temples; “the whole of Tibet was one great monastery,” she felt.
Wen does eventually learn the truth of what happened to her husband (whew!), and after decades of living as a superstitious Buddhist in primitive conditions has to readjust to life in a new China, having completely missed the Cultural Revolution. She clings to words of wisdom from a military official: “Whatever happens, remember one thing: just staying alive is a victory” and “Writing can be a source of strength.” He then gave her a diary that she filled with letters to Kejun over the years.
It’s a pleasant, short book made up of layers of tales: the legends and history lessons Wen hears from Tibetans; what she conveys to Xinran during their two intense days together; and the resulting narrative Xinran spent nearly a decade imagining herself into. Kejun’s fate is worth waiting around to hear about (but if you know what the title refers to you might consider it a spoiler), though this is something of a thin story overall. I’ve seen it referred to as a novel, though I consider it more of a stylized biography.
Did you do any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?
Polishing off the Booker Prize Shortlist
This is the second year in a row that I’ve managed to read the whole of the Man Booker Prize shortlist before the announcement of the winner. (In 2013 and 2014 I only got through four of the six titles.) Here’s my take on the final two from the shortlist (see my quick impressions of the others here and here), plus one from the longlist. I finish with thoughts about my favorites and the likely winner.
All That Man Is by David Szalay
In a riff on the Ages of Man, Szalay gives nine vignettes of men trying to figure out what life is all about. His antiheroes range from age 17 to 73. Each section has several chapters and follows a similar pattern: a man from one European country travels to another European country; there are lots of scenes set at airports or otherwise in transit, and part of the overall atmosphere of dislocation is simply the effort of having to adjust to foreignness. These trips are made for various reasons: feckless French twentysomething Bérnard has been fired by his uncle so goes ahead with a vacation to Cyprus; tabloid journalist Kristian flies from Denmark to Spain to confirm rumors of a government minister’s involvement in a scandal; recently impoverished oligarch Aleksandr takes his yacht for a farewell Adriatic cruise.
Predictably, sex is a major theme: reluctant hook-ups, fantasy lovers, affairs regretted, wild oats never sown. At times I was ready to fill in the title phrase in my best Cockney accent with “All That Man Is…is a bloody wanker.” As individual stories, there’s nothing particularly wrong with these. Inevitably, though, some are more interesting than others, and they don’t quite succeed in feeding into an overarching message, unless to confirm a mood of hedonism and angst. Life is short and pointless; enjoy its moments while you can, eh? Overall, I didn’t find this to be the philosophical and elegiac experience I expected. The prose is great, though; I’d certainly read a more straightforward novel by Szalay.
Favorite lines: “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window.”
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
“Music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.” A sweeping epic of life in China in the turbulent 1960s–80s, this is the Canadian novelist’s fourth book. Narrated from the present day by Marie (or Ma-Li), who lives in Vancouver with her mother, the novel plunges into layers of flashbacks about her family’s connection to Ai-Ming and her musician father, Sparrow. With loyalty to the Communist Party (the title is a line from its anthem) considered the gold standard of behavior and Western music widely denounced as revolutionary, these characters are in a bind: will they pursue their identity as artists, or keep their heads down to avoid trouble? This theme reminded me of Julian Barnes’s fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also asks whether music can withstand political oppression.
If, like me, you know next to nothing about China’s Cultural Revolution and the transition from Chairman Mao to successive leaders, you will learn so much. There is no denying the power of this portrayal of history. In addition, I was consistently impressed by the book’s language. Thien incorporates Chinese characters and wordplay, musical bars, and snatches of poetry and folk songs. However, I didn’t find this easy reading. The flashbacks can feel endless, such that I experienced Marie’s sections as a relief and wished for more of them. I had to set daily reading targets to get through the novel before the library due date. Yet it is the sort of epic the Booker Prize loves – with echoes of Ruth Ozeki’s The Tale for the Time Being (which should have won in 2013) and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – and is full of wise observations about what keeps us going when life falls apart. (See my full review at Nudge.)
And here’s another from the longlist that I read recently:
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
A short work of muted horror, all about atmosphere and the unexplained. Set in a Cornish fishing village, it sees newcomer Timothy Buchannan trying to figure out what happened to Perran, the man who occupied his rundown cottage until his death 10 years ago, and why everyone refuses to talk about him. Flashbacks in italics give glimpses into Timothy’s life with his wife, Lauren, who is meant to join him when he finishes the renovations; and into the fisherman Ethan’s past. I enjoyed the unsettling mood and the language used to describe the setting and Timothy’s dreams. Ultimately I’m not sure I fully understood the book, especially whether the late turns of the plot are to be viewed literally or allegorically. What I take away from it, and this is perhaps too simplistic, is an assertion that we are all joined in our losses. A quick, creepy read – you could do worse than pick it up this Halloween.
My two favorites from the shortlist are #1 His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and #2 Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. But my prediction for tomorrow’s winner is Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.
What have you managed to read from the Booker shortlist? What’s your prediction for tomorrow?
Booker Longlist Mini Reviews
Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I’d already read and reviewed four of the nominees (see my quick impressions here), and in the time since the longlist announcement I’ve managed to read another three and ruled out one more. Two were terrific; another was pretty good; the last I’ll never know because it’s clear to me I won’t read it.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
What a terrific, propulsive tale Burnet has woven out of a real-life (I think) nineteenth-century Scottish murder case. The seams between fact and fiction are so subtle you might forget you’re reading a novel, but it’s clear the author has taken great care in assembling his “documents”: witness testimonies, medical reports, a psychologist’s assessment, trial records, and – the heart of the book and the most fascinating section – a memoir written by the murderer himself. As you’re reading it you believe Roddy implicitly and feel deeply for his humiliation (the meeting with the factor and the rejection by Flora are especially agonizing scenes), but as soon as you move on to the more ‘objective’ pieces you question how he depicted things. I went back and read parts of his account two or three times, wondering how his memories squared with the facts of the case. A great one for fans of Alias Grace, though I liked this much better. This is my favorite from the Booker longlist so far.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
“I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it—I’d need a whole new mind or a whole new life.” This isn’t so much a book to enjoy as one to endure. Being in Eileen’s mind is profoundly unsettling. She’s simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by bodies; she longs for her alcoholic father’s approval even as she wonders whether she could get away with killing him. They live a life apart in their rundown home in X-ville, New England, and Eileen can’t wait to get out by whatever means necessary. When Rebecca St. John joins the staff of the boys’ prison where Eileen works, she hopes this alluring woman will be her ticket out of town.
There’s a creepy Hitchcock flavor to parts of the novel (I imagined Eileen played by Patricia Hitchcock as in Strangers on a Train, with Rebecca as Gene Tierney in Laura), and a nice late twist – but Moshfegh sure makes you wait for it. In the meantime you have to put up with the tedium and squalor of Eileen’s daily life, and there’s no escape from her mind. This is one of those rare novels I would have preferred to be in the third person: it would allow the reader to come to his/her own conclusions about Eileen’s psychology, and would have created more suspense because Eileen’s hindsight wouldn’t result in such heavy foreshadowing. I expected suspense but actually found this fairly slow and somewhat short of gripping.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
This is a most unusual mother–daughter story, set on the southern coast of Spain. Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has put off her anthropology PhD to accompany her mother, Rose, on a sort of pilgrimage to Dr. Gómez’s clinic to assess what’s wrong with Rose’s legs. What I loved about this novel is the uncertainty about who each character really is. Is Rose an invalid or a first-class hypochondriac? Is Dr. Gómez a miracle worker or a quack who’s fleeced them out of 25,000 euros? As a narrator, Sofia pretends to objective anthropological observation but is just as confused by her actions as we are: she seems to deliberately court jellyfish stings, is simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of her Greek father’s young second wife, and sleeps with both Juan and Ingrid.
Levy imbues the novel’s relationships with psychological and mythological significance, especially the Medusa story. I don’t think the ending quite fits the tone, but overall this is a quick and worthwhile read. At the same time, it’s such an odd story that it will keep you thinking about the characters. A great entry I’d be happy to see make the shortlist.
[One I won’t be reading: The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. I opened up the prequel, The Childhood of Jesus, and could only manage the first chapter. I quickly skimmed the rest but found it unutterably dull. It would take me a lot of secondary source reading to try to understand what was going on here allegorically, and it’s not made me look forward to trying more from Coetzee.]
As for the rest: I have All That Man Is by David Szalay and Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy on my Kindle and will probably read them whether or not they’re shortlisted. The same goes for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, for which I’m third in a library hold queue. I’d still like to get hold of The Many by Wyl Menmuir. That leaves just Hystopia by David Means, which I can’t say I have much interest in.
I rarely feel like I have enough of a base of experience to make accurate predictions, but if I had to guess which six books would make it through tomorrow, I would pick:
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The North Water by Ian McGuire
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
That would be three men and three women, and a pretty good mix of countries and genres. I’d be happy with that list.
What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? How do your predictions match up against mine?
A Booker Prize & Libraries Action Plan, Etc.
On Wednesday the Man Booker Prize’s longlist of 13 novels was announced. I never bother making predictions in advance of prize list announcements because inevitably I forget what was released during the eligibility period and I’m no good at squaring personal favorites with what a judging panel is likely to admire. See the Guardian’s photo essay and Karen’s thorough discussion at Booker Talk for more information about the nominees.
It turns out I’ve read and reviewed four of the longlisted books:
The Sellout by Paul Beatty for Shiny New Books: This is such an outrageous racial satire that I kept asking myself how Beatty got away with it. The Sellout struck a chord in America, but I’m slightly surprised that it’s also been received well in the UK.
The North Water by Ian McGuire for BookBrowse: A gritty, graphic novel about 19th-century whaling that traverses the open seas and the forbidding polar regions. It’s a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances.
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves on Goodreads: I was meant to review this for BookBrowse but couldn’t rate it highly enough despite the competent writing. Between the blurb and the first paragraph, you already know everything that’s going to happen.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout on Goodreads: I won a free copy through a Goodreads giveaway. I read this in one sitting on a plane ride and found it to be a powerful portrayal of the small connections that stand out in a life.
As for what’s next from the longlist, I finally have an excuse to read the copy of The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee I won from Goodreads many moons ago – a sequel to which (The Schooldays of Jesus) is among the nominees. It’ll be my first Coetzee; if I like it I’ll be sure to read the follow-up book when it comes out in September.
I already knew I was interested in Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, a creepy debut novel about a misfit; All That Man Is by David Szalay, a linked short story collection about stages of men’s lives; and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, set in Canada in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests. I’ve only read one novel each by A.L. Kennedy and Deborah Levy and wasn’t hugely keen on either author’s style, but the subject matter of both Serious Sweet and Hot Milk is more tempting. I might seek them out from the library.
And then there’s the books I’d simply never heard of. Of these I’m most interested in His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, based on a true-life murder in Scotland in the 1860s, and The Many by Wyl Menmuir, a debut novella about a village newcomer.
The surprise omission for me is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. I might also have expected to see Julian Barnes, Adam Haslett, and maybe even Ann Patchett on the longlist.
We’ve found a new rental house and hope to move in on August 15, but we’re waiting for our reference check to be complete and the tenancy contract to be drawn up before we can start doing official things like hire movers, change our address with a zillion service providers, and start packing in earnest.
This past week I’ve busied myself with comparing removals quotes and doing pre-packing tasks I’ve tried to convince myself are useful, like sorting through drawers of mementoes, assessing what’s in storage under the beds, and shifting some unwanted possessions through Freegle, a local web forum for giving away free stuff. So far I’ve gotten rid of a spice rack, 11 empty bottles, 55 empty CD cases, a cat tower plus some food and toys our fussy cat won’t use, and a wildly popular picnic hamper (11 offers came through!). It’s really gratifying to see things go to a good home.
Alas, we did also have to take some items to the local recycling center this weekend, which always seems like something of a failure, but no one’s going to want a broken vacuum cleaner and printer. My hope is that the small appliances dumped there will at least be mined for parts, so it’s better than sending them to landfill.
The weekend has also included berry picking at the local pick-your-own farm and making a summer pudding, a labor-intensive but delicious annual tradition. Plus this afternoon we’re off to Northampton to meet our newest nephew, born on the 20th.
I did finally start boxing up books last night. Much as I love my print library, it’s dispiriting just how much space it takes up. It took five boxes just to empty the small spare room bookcase! Before packing anything I did another full inventory of unread books in the flat and came up with a total of 205, higher than last time but not too bad considering the review books I’ve acquired recently as well as the secondhand shopping I’ve done. I’ve made good progress in my attempt to read mostly books I own for the summer, but it’s a resolution that will have to carry over into the autumn and winter.
The one thing that might scupper me in that plan is that, although we’re only moving 45 minutes away, we’ll be in a new council area where library reservations are free! For years I’ve been a part of library systems where it costs 40 or 50 pence to reserve each book, so I’ve kept holds to an absolute minimum. But from now on you can be sure I’ll be putting myself on the waiting list for every new and forthcoming book that appeals to me! Expect the monthly Library Checkout posts to resume by September.