We’ve only had a couple of inches of snow, plus another afternoon of flurries, so far this winter, but January was the UK’s coldest month since 2013. As usual, I’m charting the season’s passage through books as well as by taking walks and looking out the window. I have a few more wintry books on the go that I’ll hope to report on at the end of the month. Today I have a few short works, ranging from poetry to nonfiction, plus a novel set partly in frigid Nebraska.
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway (1936)
During a laughably basic New Testament class in college, a friend and I passed endless notes back and forth, discussing everything but the Bible. I found these the last time I was back in the States going through boxes. My friend’s methodical cursive looked so much more grown-up than my off-topic scrawls. Though she was only two years older, I saw her as a kind of mentor, and when she told me the gist of this Hemingway story I took heed. We must have been comparing our writing ambitions, and I confessed a lack of belief in my ability. She summed up the point of this story more eloquently than Hem himself: if you waited until you were ready to write something perfectly, you’d never write it at all. Well, 19 years later and I’m still held back by lack of confidence, but I have, finally, read the story itself. It’s about a writer on safari in Africa who realizes he is going to die of this gangrene in his leg.
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the stating. Well, he would never know, now.
he had always thought that he would write it finally. There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.
This duty: to be a witness, to crystallize your perspective and experience as a way of giving back to the world that has sustained you – it’s a compelling vision. Of course, Hemingway was a chauvinist and so the protagonist is annoyingly dismissive of the woman in his life; she might as well be a servant. I still found this everyday tragedy affecting. I couldn’t, however, be bothered to read any further in the volume (mostly Nick Adams autobiographical stories).
The World Before Snow by Tim Liardet (2015)
I couldn’t resist the title and creepy Magritte cover, so added this to my basket during the Waterstones online sale at the start of the year. Liardet’s name was unfamiliar to me, though this was the Bath University professor’s tenth poetry collection. Most of the unusual titles begin with “Self-Portrait” – for instance, “Self-Portrait as the Nashua Girl’s Reverse Nostalgia” and “Self-Portrait with Blind-Hounding Viewed in Panoramic Lens.” Apparently there is a throughline here, but if it weren’t for the blurb I would have missed it entirely. (“During a record-breaking blizzard in Boston, two poets met, one American and one English. This meeting marked the beginning of a life-transforming love affair.”) There were some turns of phrase and alliteration I liked, but overall I preferred the few poems that were not part of that pretentious central plot, e.g. “Ommerike” (part I) about mysterious mass deaths of birds and fish, “Nonagenaria,” a portrait of an old woman, and “The Guam Fever,” voiced by an ill soldier.
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett (1997)
I’d only seen covers with a rabbit and top hat, so was confused that the secondhand copy I ordered with a birthday voucher featured a lit-up farmhouse set back into snowy woods. The first third of the novel takes place in Los Angeles, where Sabine lived with her husband Parsifal, the magician she assisted for 20 years, but the rest is set in winter-encased Nebraska. The contrast between the locations forms a perfect framework for a story of illusions versus reality.
SPOILERS FOLLOW – impossible to avoid them.
Patchett opens with the terrific lines “Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story.” Ironically, his brain aneurysm burst while he was inside a hospital MRI machine, but it’s a mercy that he died quickly; he could have lingered for years with AIDS – like his lover, Phan, who died 14 months before. You see, while Parsifal while Sabine’s best friend, and in some ways the love of her life, their marriage was only a formality so that she could receive his assets. She knows little of his past; in taking on the name and persona of Parsifal the magician, he created a new life for himself. Only after his death does she learn from the will that his real name was Guy Fetters and that he has a mother, Dot, and sisters, Kitty and Bertie, back in Nebraska.
Dot and Bertie come out to L.A. to see how Guy lived and pay their respects at the cemetery, and then Sabine, lost without a magician to assist, flies out to Nebraska to stay with them for the week leading up to Bertie’s wedding. There is a tacit understanding among the family that Guy was gay, and Sabine assumes that’s why he was sent off to a boys’ reformatory. In fact, it’s because he was involved in his father’s accidental death. This kitchen has seen more than its fair share of climactic events.
END OF SPOILERS
The long section set in Nebraska went in directions I wasn’t expecting. It’s mostly based around late-night kitchen table and bedroom conversations; it’s a wonder it doesn’t become tedious. Patchett keeps the tension high as revelations emerge about what went on in this family. There are two moments when threat looks poised to spill into outright violence, in an echo of previous domestic violence.
For a long time I didn’t know what to make of the novel. It’s odd that all the consequential events happened before the first page and that we never truly meet Parsifal. Yet I loved the way that Sabine’s dreams and flashbacks widen the frame. Magic initially appears to be an arbitrary career choice, but gradually becomes a powerful metaphor of deception and control. Parsifal’s family are obsessed with a Johnny Carson performance he and Sabine once gave: they watch the video recording nightly, longing for the magic to be real. Maybe it is in the end?
Snow by Marcus Sedgwick (2016)
This Little Toller book is, at just over 100 pages, the perfect read for a wintry afternoon. It’s a lot like The Snow Tourist by Charlie English, though that book is travel-based, whereas for this one Sedgwick stayed put at his home in the Haute-Savoie, an alpine region of eastern France (and was even snowed in for part of the time), and wandered in his memory instead.
He writes that snow is “a form of nostalgia” for him, bringing back childhood days off school when he could just stay home and play – he loves it for “the freedom it represented.” He asks himself, “did it snow more when I was young, or is it just my desire and recreated memory?” Looking at weather statistics from Kent, he is able to confirm that, yes, it really did snow more in the 1960s and 70s.
Sedgwick briefly considers the science, history, art, and literature of snow, including polar expeditions and film, music, and paintings as well as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain et al. He also likens the blank page to a snow-covered field, such that writers should not be daunted by it but excited by the possibility of creation.
In the Winter Dark by Tim Winton (1988)
A taut early novella (just 110 pages) set in an Australian valley called the Sink. Animals have been disappearing: a pet dog snatched from its chain; livestock disemboweled. Four locals are drawn together by fear of an unidentified killer. Maurice Stubbs is the only one given a first-person voice, but passages alternate between his perspective and those of his wife Ida, Murray Jaccob, and Veronica, a pregnant teen. These are people on the edge, reckless and haunted by the past. The malevolent force comes to take on a vengeful nature. I was reminded of Andrew Michael Hurley’s novels. My first taste of Winton’s fiction has whetted my appetite to read more by him – I have Cloudstreet on the shelf.
Have you been reading anything particularly wintry this year?
Over halfway through the summer and my numbers are looking poor. It’s not that I’m not reading a ton – in general, I am – it’s just that I’m having trouble finishing any foodie books. I’m in the middle of two food-related memoirs plus Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, and have recently started buddy-reading Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn with Annabel, so more reviews will be along eventually, but I predict August will be a scramble.
Today I review an in-your-face tell-all about the life of a chef, and a novel set between Japan and the United States that exposes the seamy side of meat production. A lite road trip and an iffy California classic follow as bonuses.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
(20 Books of Summer, #5) “Get that dried crap away from my bird!” That random line about herbs is one my husband and I remember from a Bourdain TV program and occasionally quote to each other. It’s a mild curse compared to the standard fare in this flashy memoir about what really goes on in restaurant kitchens. His is a macho, vulgar world of sex and drugs. In the “wilderness years” before he opened his Les Halles restaurant, Bourdain worked in kitchens in Baltimore and New York City and was addicted to heroin and cocaine. Although he eventually cleaned up his act, he would always rely on cigarettes and alcohol to get through ridiculously long days on his feet.
From “Appetizer” to “Coffee and a Cigarette,” the book is organized like a luxury meal. Bourdain charts his development as a chef, starting with a childhood summer in France during which he ate vichyssoise and oysters for the first time and learned that food “could be important … an event” and describing his first cooking job in Provincetown and his time at the Culinary Institute of America. He also discusses restaurant practices and hierarchy, and home cook cheats and essentials. (I learned that you should never order fish in a restaurant on a Monday – it’ll be left over from Thursday’s order.) The pen portraits of his crazy sous-chef and baker are particularly amusing; other subjects include a three-star chef he envies and the dedicated Latino immigrants who are the mainstay of his kitchen staff.
My dad is not a reader but he is a foodie, and he has read Bourdain’s nonfiction (and watched all his shows), so I felt like I was continuing a family tradition in reading this. I loved my first taste of Bourdain’s writing: he’s brash, passionate, and hilariously scornful of celebrity chefs and vegetarianism (“the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food”). Being in charge of a restaurant sounds manic, yet you can see why some would find it addictive. How ironic, though, to find a whole seven references to suicide in this book. Sometimes he’s joking; sometimes he’s talking about chefs he’s heard about who couldn’t take the pressure. Eighteen years after this came out, he, too, would kill himself.
(See also this article about rereading Bourdain in the 20th anniversary year of Kitchen Confidential.)
Source: Local swap shop (free)
(These two are linked by a late chapter in the Bourdain, “Mission to Tokyo,” in which he advises on a new Les Halles offshoot in Japan and gorges himself on seafood delights.)
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (1998)
(20 Books of Summer, #6) I don’t know what took me so long to read another novel by Ruth Ozeki after A Tale for the Time Being, one of my favorite books of 2013. This is nearly as fresh, vibrant and strange. Set in 1991, it focuses on the making of a Japanese documentary series, My American Wife, sponsored by a beef marketing firm. Japanese American filmmaker Jane Takagi-Little is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. The traditional values and virtues of her two countries are in stark contrast, as are Main Street/Ye Olde America and the burgeoning Walmart culture.
There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems: Jane, whose reproductive system was damaged by DES, a synthetic estrogen her mother took during pregnancy to prevent a miscarriage; and Akiko, the wife of Jane’s boss, who struggles with an eating disorder and domestic violence.
Jane starts sneaking controversial subjects into her shoots: a lesbian couple, a family formed by interracial adoption, and a five-year-old who has already undergone puberty due to the hormones used on her family’s cattle feedlot. What is “natural,” and what gets branded alien or invasive? From the kudzu that strangles the South to a murdered Japanese exchange student, Ozeki probes the related issues of nativism and racism. Her two protagonists’ stories – one in the first person; the other in the third person – come together in a surprising manner as Jane decides that she has a more pressing obligation than creating a diverting television show.
This is a bold if at times discomforting novel. At first it brought to mind the exaggerated comedy of Julian Barnes’s England, England and Jane Smiley’s Moo, but as it grew darker it reminded me more of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. It’s tricky, when a work of fiction tackles ethical or environmental matters, to balance storytelling and consciousness-raising, but Ozeki pulls it off with style. The only aspect that didn’t mean much to me, perhaps simply because of my unfamiliarity, was the excerpts from The Pillow Book of Shōnagon. How sad to think that I only have one more Ozeki awaiting me, All Over Creation. She averages a book every 5‒10 years; we can only hope that another is on the way soon.
Source: Charity shop
I picked up another two food-adjacent books that didn’t work for me, though I ended up skimming them to the end.
America Unchained: A Freewheeling Roadtrip in Search of Non-Corporate USA by Dave Gorman (2008)
(20 Books of Summer, #7) I read the first couple of chapters, in which he plans his adventure, and then started skimming. I expected this to be a breezy read I would race through, but the voice was neither inviting nor funny. I also hoped to find more about non-chain supermarkets and restaurants – that’s why I put this on the pile for my foodie challenge in the first place – but, from a skim, it mostly seemed to be about car trouble, gas stations and fleabag motels. The only food-related moments are when Gorman (a vegetarian) downs three fast food burgers and orders of fries in 10 minutes and, predictably, vomits them all back up; and when he stops at an old-fashioned soda fountain for breakfast.
Source: Free bookshop
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935)
(20 Books of Summer, #8) I read the first 25 pages and then started skimming. This is a story of a group of friends – paisanos, of mixed Mexican, Native American and Caucasian blood – in Monterey, California. During World War I, Danny serves as a mule driver and Pilon is in the infantry. When discharged from the Army, they return to Tortilla Flat, where Danny has inherited two houses. He lives in one and Pilon is his tenant in the other (though Danny will never see a penny in rent). They’re a pair of loveable scamps, like Huck Finn all grown up, stealing wine and chickens left and right.
Steinbeck novels seem to fall into two camps for me. This is one of his inconsequential, largely unlikable novellas (like The Pearl and The Red Pony, which I studied in school – I’m lucky they didn’t put me off Steinbeck forever), whereas The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are masterful. It may also have something to do with the slight air of condescension towards characters of a different race: Steinbeck renders their speech with “thee” and “thou,” trying to imitate a Romance language’s informal pronouns, but it feels dated and alienating.
Source: Free bookshop
Recently I have found myself drawn to memoirs that experiment with form. I’ve read so many autobiographical narratives at this point that, if it’s to stand out for me, a book has to offer something different, such as a second-person point-of-view or a structure of linked essays. Here are a few such that I’ve read this year but not written about yet. All have strong themes of memory and the creation of the self or the family.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb (2020)
You know from the jokes: Jewish (grand)mothers are renowned for their fiercely protective, unconditional love, but also for their tendency to nag. Both sides of a stereotypical matriarch are on display in this funny and heartfelt family memoir, narrated in the second person – as if straight to Kalb from beyond the grave – by her late grandmother, Barbara “Bobby” Bell.
Bobby gives her beloved Bessie a tour through four generations of strong women, starting with her own mother, Rose, and her lucky escape from a Belarus shtetl. The formidable émigré ended up in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, where she gave birth to five children on the dining room table. Bobby and her husband, a real estate entrepreneur and professor, had one daughter, Robin, who in turn had one daughter, Bess. Bobby and Robin had a fraught relationship, but Bess’s birth seemed to reset the clock. Grandmother and granddaughter had a special bond: Bobby was the one to take her to preschool and wait outside the door until she was sure she’d be okay, and always the one to pick her up from sleepovers gone wrong.
Kalb is a Los Angeles-based writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live! With her vivid scene-setting and comic timing, you can see why she’s earned a Writers Guild Award and an Emmy nomination. But she also had great material to work with: Bobby’s e-mails and verbatim voicemail messages are hilarious. Kalb dots in family photographs and recreates in-person and phone conversations, with her grandmother forthrightly questioning her fashion choices and non-Jewish boyfriend. As the title phrase shows, Bobby felt she was the only one who would come forward with all this (unwanted but) necessary advice. Kalb keeps things snappy, alternating between narrative chapters and the conversations and covering a huge amount of family history in just 200 pages. It gets a little sentimental towards the end, but with her grandmother’s death still fresh you can forgive her that. This was a real delight.
My thanks to Zoe Hood and Kimberley Nyamhondera of Little, Brown (Virago) for the free PDF copy for review.
In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)
I’m stingy with 5-star ratings because, for me, giving a book top marks means a) it’s a masterpiece, b) it’s a game/mind/life changer, and/or c) it expands the possibilities of its particular genre. In the Dream House fits all three criteria. (Somewhat to my surprise, given that I couldn’t get through more than half of Machado’s acclaimed story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and only enjoyed it in parts.)
Much has been written about this memoir of an abusive same-sex relationship since its U.S. release in November. I feel I have little to add to the conversation beyond my deepest admiration for how it prioritizes voice, theme and scenes; gleefully does away with the chronology and (not directly relevant) backstory – in other words, the boring bits – that most writers would so slavishly detail; and engages with history, critical theory and the tropes of folk tales to constantly interrogate her experiences and perceptions.
Most of the book is, like the Kalb, in the second person, but in this case the narration is not addressing a specific other person; instead, it’s looking back at the self that was caught in this situation (“If, one day, a milky portal had opened up in your bedroom and an older version of yourself had stepped out and told you what you know now, would you have listened?”), as well as – what the second person does best – putting the reader right into the narrative.
The “Dream House” is the Victorian house where Machado lived with her ex-girlfriend in Bloomington, Indiana for two years while she started an MFA course. It was a paradise until it wasn’t; it was a perfect relationship until it wasn’t. No one, least of all her, would have believed the perky little blonde writer she fell for would turn sadistic. A lot of it was emotional manipulation and verbal and psychological abuse, but there was definitely a physical element as well. Fear and self-doubt kept her trapped in a fairy tale that had long since turned into a nightmare. Writing it all out seven years later, the trauma was still there. Yet there was no tangible evidence (a police report, a restraining order, photos of bruises) to site her abuse anywhere outside of her memory. How fleeting, yet indelible, it had all been.
The book is in relatively short sections headed “Dream House as _________” (fill in the blank with everything from “Time Travel” to “Confession”), and the way that she pecks at her memories from different angles is perfect for recreating the spiral of confusion and despair. She also examines the history of our understanding of queer domestic violence: lesbian domestic violence, specifically, wasn’t known about until 30-some years ago.
The story has a happy ending in that Machado is now happily married. The bizarre twist, though, is that her wife, YA author Val Howlett, was the girlfriend of the woman in the Dream House when they first met. To start with, it was an “open relationship” (or at least the blonde told her so) that Machado reluctantly got in the middle of, before Val drifted away. That the two of them managed to reconnect, and got past their mutual ex, is truly astonishing. (See some super-cute photos from their wedding here.)
Some favorite lines:
“Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind”
“That there’s a real ending to anything is, I’m pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go.”
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness (2014)
This is a wonderfully atmospheric tribute to Bouillon, Belgium, a Wallonian border town with its own patois. However, it’s chiefly a memoir about the maternal side of the author’s family, which had lived there for generations. McGuinness grew up spending summers in Bouillon with his grandparents and aunt. Returning to the place as an adult, he finds it half-derelict but still storing memories around every corner.
It is as much a tour through memory as through a town, reflecting on how our memories are bound up with particular sites and objects – to the extent that I don’t think I would find McGuinness’s Bouillon even if I went back to Belgium. “When I’m asked about events in my childhood, about my childhood at all, I think mostly of rooms. I think of times as places, with walls and windows and doors,” he writes. The book is also about the nature of time: Bouillon seems like a place where time stands still or moves more slowly, allowing its residents (including his grandfather, and Paprika, “Bouillon’s laziest man, who held a party to celebrate sixty years on the dole”) a position of smug idleness.
The book is in short vignettes, some as short as a paragraph; each is a separate piece with a title that remembers a particular place, event or local character. Some are poems, and there are also recipes and an inventory. The whole is illustrated with frequent period or contemporary black-and-white photographs. It’s an altogether lovely book that overcomes its narrow local interest to say something about how the past remains alive for us.
Some favorite lines:
“that hybrid long-finished but real-time-unfolding present tense … reflects the inside of our lives far better than those three stooges, the past, present and future”
a fantastic last line: “What I want to say is: I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday.”
I read a public library copy.
Other unusual memoirs I’ve loved and reviewed here:
Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth (essays, experimental structures)
Winter Journal by Paul Auster (second person)
This Really Isn’t about You by Jean Hannah Edelstein (nonchronological)
Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler (short sections and time shifts)
The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe (nonchronological essays)
Any offbeat memoirs you can recommend?
Novels narrated by an octogenarian and an unborn child; memoirs about connection with nature and escaping an abusive relationship; and a strong poetry collection that includes some everyday epics: these five wildly different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old
In this anonymous Dutch novel in diary form, Hendrik Groen provides a full reckoning of how 2013 went down in his Amsterdam old folks’ care home. He and five friends form the “Old But Not Dead” club and take turns planning exciting weekly outings. Much comic relief is provided by his incorrigibly tippling friend, Evert, and the arrival of Eefje makes late-life romance seem like a possibility for Hendrik. However, there’s no getting around physical decay: between them these friends suffer from incontinence, dementia, diabetic amputations and a stroke. By the time 2014 rolls around, their number will be reduced by one. Yet this is a tremendously witty and warm-hearted book, despite Hendrik’s sad family history. It’s definitely one for fans of A Man Called Ove – but I liked this more. A sequel from 85-year-old Hendrik came out this year in Dutch; I’ll be looking forward to the English translation.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy
By Michael McCarthy
An environmental journalist for the UK’s Independent, McCarthy offers a personal view of how the erstwhile abundance of the natural world has experienced a dramatic thinning, even just in England in his lifetime. He gives both statistical and anecdotal evidence for that decline; as a case study he discusses the construction of a sea wall at Saemangeum in South Korea, responsible for decimating a precious estuary habitat for shorebirds. As if to balance his pessimism about the state of the world, McCarthy remembers singular natural encounters that filled him with joy and wonder – first discovering birdwatching as a lad near Liverpool, seeing a morpho butterfly in South America – but also annual displays that rekindle his love of life: the winter solstice, the arrival of cuckoos, and bluebells. This memoir is more sentimental than I expected from an English author, but I admire his passion and openness.
By Ian McEwan
My seventh McEwan novel and one of his strongest. Within the first few pages, I was utterly captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Provided you suspend disbelief a bit to accept he can see/hear/surmise everything that happens – the most tedious passages are those where McEwan tries to give more precise justification for his narrator’s observations – the plot really works. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this fetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
Favorite line: “I have lungs but not air to shout a warning or weep with shame at my impotence.”
How Snow Falls
By Craig Raine
One of the few best poetry collections I’ve read this year. It contains nary a dud and is a good one to sink your teeth into – it’s composed of just 20 poems, but several are in-depth epics drawn from everyday life and death. Two elegies, to a dead mother and a former lover, are particularly strong. I loved the mixture of clinical and whimsical vocabulary in “I Remember My Mother” as the poet charts the transformation from person to corpse. “Rashomon” is another stand-out, commissioned as an opera and inspired by the short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In couplets with a flexible rhyme scheme, the poem alternates the perspectives of a bandit, a captive husband, his raped wife, and the woodcutter who becomes an unwilling observer. Alliteration is noteworthy throughout the collection, but here produces one of my favorite lines: “Sweet cedar chips were spurting in the gloom like sparks.”
Land of Enchantment
By Leigh Stein
Stein tells of her abusive relationship with Jason, a reckless younger man with whom she moved to New Mexico. The memoir mostly toggles between their shaky attempt at a functional relationship in 2007 and learning about his death in a motorcycle accident in 2011. Even though they’d drifted apart, Jason’s memory still had power over her. Breaking free from him meant growing up at last and taking responsibility for her future. You might call this a feminist coming-of-age narrative, though that makes it sound more strident and formulaic than it actually is. I admired the skipping around in time, and especially a late chapter in the second person. I also enjoyed how New Mexico provides a metaphorical as well as a literal setting; Stein weaves in references to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and letters to put into context her own search to become a self-sufficient artist.