During the coronavirus pandemic, we have had to take small pleasures where we can. One of the highlights of lockdown for me has been the chance to participate in literary events like book-themed concerts, prize shortlist announcements, book club discussions, live literary award ceremonies and book festivals that time, distance and cost might otherwise have precluded.
In May I attended several digital Hay Festival events, and this September to early October I’ve been delighted to journey back to Wigtown, Scotland – even if only virtually.
The Bookshop Band
The Bookshop Band have been a constant for me this year. After watching their 21 Friday evening lockdown shows on Facebook, as well as a couple of one-off performances for other festivals, I have spent so much time with them in their living room that they feel more like family than a favorite band. Add to that four of the daily breakfast chat shows from the Wigtown Book Festival and I’ve seen them play over 25 times this year already!
(The still below shows them with, clockwise from bottom left, guests Emma Hooper, Stephen Rutt and Jason Webster.)
Ben and Beth’s conversations with featured authors and local movers and shakers, punctuated by one song per guest, were pleasant to have on in the background while working. The songs they performed were, ideally, written for those authors’ books, but other times just what seemed most relevant; at times this was a stretch! I especially liked seeing Donal Ryan, about whose The Spinning Heart they’ve recently written a terrific song; Kate Mosse, who has been unable to write during lockdown so (re)read 200 books instead, including all of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh et al.; and Ned Beauman, who is nearing the deadline for his next novel, a near-future story of two scientists looking for traces of the venomous lumpsucker (a made-up fish) in the Baltic Sea. Closer to science fiction than his previous work, it’s a funny take on extinctions, he said. I’ve read all of his published work, so I’m looking forward to this one.
The opening event of the Festival was an in-person chat between Lee Randall and Shaun Bythell in Wigtown, rather than the split-screen virtual meet-ups that made up the rest of my viewing. Bythell, owner of The Book Shop, has become Wigtown’s literary celebrity through The Diary of a Bookseller and its sequel. In early November he has a new book coming out, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops. I’m halfway through it and it has more substance than its stocking-stuffer dimensions would imply. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names, as if he’s naming species.
The Book Shop closed for 116 days during COVID-19: the only time in more than 40 years that it has been closed for longer than just over the Christmas holidays. He said that it has been so nice to see customers again; they’ve been a ray of sunshine for him, something the curmudgeon would never usually say! Business has been booming since his reopening, with Agatha Christie his best seller – it’s not just Mosse who’s turning to cozy mysteries. He’s also been touched by the kindness of strangers, such as one from Monaco who sent him £300, having read an article by Margaret Atwood about how hard it is for small businesses just now and hoping it would help the shop survive until they could get there in person.
(Below: Bythell on his 50th birthday, with Captain the cat.)
Randall and Bythell discussed a few of the types of customers he regularly encounters. One is the autodidact, who knows more than you and intends for you to know it. This is not the same, though, as the expert who actually helps you by sharing their knowledge (of a rare cover version on an ordinary-looking crime paperback, for instance). There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant.
Appearing from Dublin, Mark O’Connell was interviewed by Scottish writer and critic Stuart Kelly about his latest book, Notes from an Apocalypse (my review). He noted that, while all authors hope their books are timely, perhaps he overshot with this one! The book opens with climate change as the most immediate threat, yet now he feels that “has receded as the locus of anxiety.” O’Connell described the “flattened” experience of being alive at the moment and contrasted it with the existential awfulness of his research travels. For instance, he read a passage from the book about being at an airport Yo Sushi! chain and having a vision of horror at the rampant consumerism its conveyor belt seemed to represent.
Kelly characterized O’Connell’s personal, self-conscious approach to the end of the world as “brave,” while O’Connell said, “in terms of mental health, I should have chosen any other topic!” Having children creates both vulnerability and possibility, he contended, and “it doesn’t do you any good as a parent to indulge in those predilections [towards extreme pessimism].” They discussed preppers’ white male privilege, New Zealand and Mars as havens, and Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough as saints of the climate crisis.
O’Connell pinpointed Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as the work he spends more time on in his book than any other; none of your classic nihilist literature here, and he deliberately avoided bringing up biblical references in his secular approach. In terms of the author he’s reached for most over the last few years, and especially during lockdown, it’s got to be Annie Dillard. Speaking of the human species, he opined, “it should not be unimaginable that we should cease to exist at some point.”
This talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading the book (vice versa would probably be true, too – I got the gist of Roman Krznaric’s recent thinking from his Hay Festival talk and so haven’t been engaging with his book as much as I’d like), but it was nice to see O’Connell ‘in person’ since he couldn’t make it to the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize ceremony.
Glasgow-born Douglas Stuart is a fashion designer in New York City. Again the interviewer was Lee Randall, an American journalist based in Edinburgh – she joked that she and Stuart have swapped places. Stuart said he started writing his Booker-shortlisted novel, Shuggie Bain, 12 years ago, and kept it private for much of that time. Although he and Randall seemed keen to downplay how autobiographical the work is, like his title character, Stuart grew up in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic single mother. As a gay boy, he felt he didn’t have a voice in Thatcher’s Britain. He knew many strong women who were looked down on for being poor.
It’s impossible to write an apolitical book about poverty (or a Glasgow book without dialect), Stuart acknowledged, yet he insisted that the novel is primarily “a portrait of two souls moving through the world,” a love story about Shuggie and his mother, Agnes. The author read a passage from the start of Chapter 2, when readers first meet Agnes, the heart of the book. Randall asked about sex as currency and postulated that all Agnes – or any of these characters; or any of us, really – wants is someone whose face lights up when they see you.
The name “Shuggie” was borrowed from a small-town criminal in his housing scheme; it struck him as ironic that a thug had such a sweet nickname. Stuart said that writing the book was healing for him. He thinks that men who drink and can’t escape poverty are often seen as loveable rogues, while women are condemned for how they fail their children. Through Agnes, he wanted to add some nuance to that double standard.
The draft of Shuggie Bain was 900 pages, single-spaced, but his editor helped him cut it while simultaneously drawing out the important backstories of Agnes and some other characters. He had almost finished his second novel by the time Shuggie was published, so he hopes it will be with readers soon.
[I have reluctantly DNFed Shuggie Bain at p. 100, but I’ll keep my proof copy on the shelf in case one day I feel like trying it again – especially if, as seems likely, it wins the Booker Prize.]
Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)
The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.
There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.
This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.
Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).
The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.
The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.
I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.
I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.
My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)
Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.
What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? Do you have any predictions for the shortlist?
In 2014 I read 20 short story collections, but in 2015 and 2016 (at least so far) I’ve only managed 10 per year. Three of those have all clumped within the last month or so, though. I started The Pier Falls back in May but set it aside at the halfway point; luckily, when I returned to it earlier this month I devoured the rest within a few hours. I also reviewed the second annual anthology of Best Small Fictions for the Small Press Book Review, a new online venue for me, and tried out Alexandra Kleeman’s short stories after loving her debut novel last year. Mini reviews below…
Best Small Fictions 2016, edited by Stuart Dybek
This collects 45 super-short stories that stand out for their structure, voice, and character development—all in spite of often extreme brevity. Humor and pathos provide sharp pivot points. It helps to have an unusual perspective, like that of a Venus flytrap observing a household’s upheavals (Janey Skinner’s “Carnivores”), or of potential names gathering around a baptismal font (Alberto Chimal’s “The Waterfall”). Hard as it is to choose from such a diverse bunch, I do have three favorites: Elizabeth Morton’s “Parting,” in which a divorce causes things to be literally divided; Mary-Jane Holmes’s “Trifle,” where alliteration and culinary vocabulary contrast an English summer with Middle Eastern traces; and Amir Adam’s “The Physics of Satellites,” which uses images from astronomy and a recent suicide to contrast falling, flying, and barely holding on. There are fewer highlights than in the previous volume, but this is still an excellent snapshot of contemporary flash fiction. (See my full review at the Small Press Book Review.)
The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon
These nine stories examine what characters do in extreme, often violent situations. My three favorites were “Bunny,” reminiscent of The Fattest Man in Britain with its picture of a friendship between an obese man and a young woman who sees more in him than his size; “The Woodpecker and the Wolf,” a brilliantly suspenseful tale set in space – it reminded me of the Sandra Bullock movie Gravity; and “The Weir,” which imagines the unexpectedly lasting relationship between a lonely middle-aged man and the young woman he rescues from a near-suicide by drowning. “Wodwo” starts off as a terrific Christmas horror story but goes on far too long and loses power. I would say that about several of these stories, actually: they’re that bit too long, so that you start waiting for them to be over. I prefer sudden endings that give a bit of a kick. All in all, though, two-thirds of the stories are fairly memorable, and I’d say I liked this better than any of Haddon’s three novels.
Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman
Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was a surprise favorite of mine from last year. Alas, her stories don’t pack the same punch. True, some of them employ a similar combination of surreal plot and in-your-face ideology, but only four out of the 12 stories seemed to me strong enough to stand alone. These were “Lobster Dinner,” surely inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, in which crustaceans wreak revenge on their consumers; “The Dancing-Master,” about a man who tries to introduce a nineteenth-century feral boy to culture only for wildness to come creeping back; “I May Not Be the One You Want,” in which Karen, writing a profile about a dairy farmer, avoids men’s attempts to turn her into a sexual object; and “Fake Blood,” another pseudo-horror story about a girl in a nurse costume who can’t decide whether she’s caught up in a murder mystery game or a real serial killer’s trap. Of the rest, four or five – including vignettes from Karen’s future life – are okay and a couple are pointless as well as seemingly endless (“A Brief History of Weather” and “Hylomorphosis”). Students of feminist literature, especially fans of Angela Carter, may be willing to exchange satisfying storytelling for messages about women’s bodies and anxiety about motherhood.
On Tuesday I finished All That Man Is by David Szalay, from the Booker Prize shortlist. Whether it’s a novel or actually short stories is certainly a matter for debate! After I read Madeleine Thien’s shortlisted novel (I’ll be picking it up from the library on Friday) I’ll report back on both in advance of the prize announcement at the end of October.
I’m also currently making my way through How Much the Heart Can Hold, a set of seven stories from the likes of Carys Bray and Donal Ryan on the theme of different types of love, and Petina Gappah’s forthcoming collection, Rotten Row. (Both are out in early November.)
Collections on my Kindle that I’m keen to read soon, maybe even before the end of this year, include We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Music in Wartime by Rebecca Makkai, and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – exciting!
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” Through a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, Barnes questions how art can withstand political oppression. Knowing Barnes’s penchant for stylistic experimentation, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as he so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich has a reckoning with Power. The book is full of terrific one-liners (“Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable”), but there are not many memorable scenes to latch on to.
Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (& interview) by Michael Pronko: Pronko’s third collection of essays about his adopted city is an eloquent tribute to a place full of contradictions and wonders. Compared to his earlier collection, Beauty and Chaos, I sense Pronko is now more comfortable in his surroundings, perhaps happier to include himself in ‘we’ rather than looking on passively at ‘them’. For instance – inspired by Japanese women’s perfect outfits – he consciously tries to dress better, and he’s taken to eating ramen and sleeping on a futon, just like a native. The highlight is a set of pieces written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake / tsunami.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie: Veblen, named after the late-nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist, is one of the oddest heroines you’ll ever meet. She thinks squirrels are talking to her and kisses flowers. But McKenzie doesn’t just play Veblen for laughs; she makes her a believable character well aware of her own psychological backstory. I suspect the squirrel material could be a potential turn-off for readers who can’t handle too much whimsy. Over-the-top silly in places, this is nonetheless a serious account of the difficulty of Veblen and Paul, her neurology researcher fiancé, blending their dysfunctional families and different ideologies – which is what marriage is all about.
Weathering by Lucy Wood: This atmospheric debut novel is set in a crumbling house by an English river and stars three generations of women – one of them a ghost. Ada has returned to her childhood home after 13 years to scatter her mother Pearl’s ashes, sort through her belongings, and get the property ready to sell. In a sense, then, this is a haunted house story. Yet Wood introduces the traces of magical realism so subtly that they never feel jolting. Like the river, the novel is fluid, moving between the past and present with ease. The vivid picture of the English countryside and clear-eyed look at family dynamics remind me most of Tessa Hadley (The Past) and Polly Samson (The Kindness).
When We Were Invincible by Jonathan Harnisch: In this short novel, a young man wrestles with depression and Tourette’s syndrome, which together drive him to the point of suicide. A series of dreams and chance meetings, along with the possibility of romance and faith in God, pull him back from the edge. The book successfully introduces philosophical themes and gives a sympathetic picture of mental illness. However, it is weaker at filling in background and providing transitions, and there are many awkward, unlikely lines of dialogue. Recommended to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: The twisty, clever story of a doomed filmmaker – perfect for fans of Hausfrau. Who is Sophie Stark? A New York City-based indie director whose four documentary-style movies are “almost more like life than life itself.” Bisexual and with certain traits of high-functioning autism, Sophie is easily misunderstood. She’s a rebel who doesn’t conform to social niceties. The book is told through five first-person reminiscences from the people closest to her. In this respect the novel’s format recalls Kitchens of the Great Midwest. My favorite sections, though, are the reviews of her films, all by the same critic.
Casualties by Betsy Marro: A powerful, melancholy debut novel about how war affects whole families, not just individual soldiers. As in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which Casualties resembles in tone if not in style, a bereaved mother sets off on a journey. Ruth’s unlikely companion on the road trip east is a Gulf War amputee who appears little more than a conman but genuinely wants to clean up his act so he can reconcile with his teenage daughter. At times the road trip scenario felt a little far-fetched to me, and Casey too obvious a replacement son figure. Yet as both he and Ruth ponder how much they have lost and the small things they can try to put right, they together form a touching picture of the various ways war’s effects can linger.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: “All stories are ghost stories,” Samantha Hunt proclaims in her quirky third novel about the crossover between motherhood and mysticism. In a dual storyline that takes in fundamentalist cults, unlikely mediums and a pregnant woman’s pilgrimage, Hunt asks whether one can ever believe in the unseen. Mr. Splitfoot has the offbeat charm of Scarlett Thomas’s work. While the plot ultimately feels like a bit of a jumble, its vision of unexpected love and loyalty remains compelling. “The End’s always coming,” but it is how one lives in the face of brutality and impending extinction that matters.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett: A debut novel in which an Australian whaler’s daughter looks back at 1908, a catastrophic whaling season but also her first chance at romance. I felt that additional narrators, such as a whaleman or an omniscient voice, would have allowed for more climactic scenes. Still, I found this gently funny, especially the fact that the family’s cow and horse are inseparable and must be together on any outing. There are some great descriptions of whales, too.
Felicity by Mary Oliver: I was disappointed with my first taste of Mary Oliver’s poetry. So many readers praise her work to the skies, and I’ve loved excerpts I’ve read elsewhere. However, I found these to be rather simplistic and clichéd, especially poems’ final lines, e.g. “Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home. / And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.” or “Late, late, but now lovely and lovelier. / And the two of us, together—a part of it.” I’ll definitely try more of her work, but I’ll look out for an older, classic collection.
Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Full of blunt, faux-profound sentences and smutty, two-dimensional characters. Others may rave about it, but this wasn’t for me. I get that it is a satire on female friendship and youth entitlement. But I hated how the main characters get involved in a love triangle, and once they leave college any interest I had in them largely disappeared. Least favorite lines: “Paulina. She’s like Cleopatra, but more squat.” / “She’s more like Humphrey Bogart” and “She craved the zen-ness of being rammed.”
Noah’s Wife by Lindsay Starck: I kept wanting to love this book, but never quite did. It’s more interesting as a set of ideas – a town where it won’t stop raining, a minister losing faith, homeless zoo animals sheltering with ordinary folk – than as an executed plot. My main problem was that the minor characters take over so that you never get to know the title character, who remains nameless. There’s also a ton of platitudes towards the end. It reminded me most of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Not Forgetting the Whale (another cozy environmental dystopia based around biblical allusions).
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume: This sounded like a charmingly offbeat story about a loner and his adopted dog setting off on a journey. As it turns out, this debut is much darker than expected, but what saves it from being unremittingly depressing is the same careful attention to voice you encounter in fellow Irish writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Enright. It’s organized into four sections, with the title’s four verbs as headings. In a novel low on action, the road trip is much the most repetitive section, extending to the language as well. Even so, Baume succeeds in giving a compassionate picture of a character whose mental state comes into question. (Full review in March 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Medium Hero by Korby Lenker: Lenker is an indie musician, and the 27 autobiographical stories in his debut collection are about the everyday challenges of being on the road versus trying to pay the bills. Many feature “Korby” or “Simon” as fictional stand-ins, and recurring locations include his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho and his adopted home of Nashville. As the title suggests, Lenker has no illusions about being famous or out of the ordinary. Most of the time he just tries to be a decent guy, the kind who prays for family members in distress even though he’s not sure he believes in God. Lest that sound too serious, though, there are also stories about peeing his pants and the perils of being a metrosexual.
Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan: Slides down like ice cream. And I say that even though the whole basis for this memoir feels rather thin. Corrigan frames it around five months in the early 1990s when she worked as a nanny for two Australian kids whose mother died of cancer. For a young woman fresh out of college, it was like a trial run for being a mother, and also gave her a new appreciation for everything her own mother had done for her during her Philadelphia Catholic upbringing. If Corrigan’s father was the ‘glitter’ of the family, her mother was the ‘glue’ – holding everything together in the background. This is impressively reconstructed, dialogue and all, from letters, journals and photos.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope: This novel was inspired by the story of the author’s great-great-grandfather, an Irishman who was a patient at Menston Asylum in West Yorkshire from 1909 to 1918. The novel zeroes in on the long, hot summer of 1911, focusing through alternating close third-person chapters on John Mulligan, a new patient named Ella Fay, and Dr. Charles Fuller, who wants to put his mental hospital at the frontline of eugenics research. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as Wake, but I think it cements Anna Hope’s reputation as a solid historical fiction writer. I hope with her next book she’ll move beyond the years around World War I to consider a less-chronicled era.
Life without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber: The Jordanian–American writer reflects on how various food cultures have sustained her through a life that hasn’t always turned out as expected. Three marriages, a move from Portland to Florida, a winding path to motherhood in her forties, and her father’s death from leukemia are some of the main events. Like Sasha Martin’s Life from Scratch, this is more about family and personal history than it is about food (and there are no recipes). Still, food is the stuff of memories, and it is what binds her to two strong characters: her Jordanian father Bud with his stuffed grape leaves, and her maternal grandmother Grace with her frequent baking and the pastries they consumed together in Paris.
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: This fictionalized account of the life of E.M. Forster focuses on the drawn-out composition of A Passage to India, which he began in 1913 but wouldn’t complete and publish until 1924. In between he broke off to write his explicitly homosexual novel Maurice (only published posthumously), spent three years working in Egypt during the war, and served as a secretary to an Indian maharajah. As fictionalized biographies of authors go, I’d rate this somewhere between David Lodge’s A Man of Parts (H.G. Wells) and Colm Tóibín’s superior The Master (Henry James); all three share a heavy focus on the author’s sexuality. “Buggery in the colonies. It wasn’t noble” is one of my favorite random snippets from this novel, and sums up, for me, its slightly prurient aftertaste.
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
“I have no idea why everyone thinks nature is so benign and glorious and wonderful. All nature is trying to do is kill us as efficiently as possible.”
This offbeat novel about obsession, sex and inheritance is set in Kent in 2011 and stars an extended family of botanists. The concept of a family tree has a more than usually literal meaning here given the shared surname is Gardener and most members are named after plants. We have Great-Aunt Oleander, recently deceased; cousin Bryony and her children Holly and Ash; siblings Charlie and Clem (short for Clematis); and half-sister Fleur, who has taken over Oleander’s yoga center, Namaste House. The generation in between was virtually lost, perhaps to a plant-based drug overdose, on a seed collecting expedition to the South Pacific. Oleander has left each motherless child one of these possibly deadly seed pods.
Did I mention the book is saturated with sex? Incest, adultery, illegitimate children, S&M, Internet porn, you name it. But beyond that, the metaphorical language is highly sexualized – bursting with seeds, fertility and genital-like plants. I can’t think when I’ve encountered such oversexed vocabulary since D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Here’s a sampling:
Dave seems to be avoiding the clouds as he works the little plane up into the sky, penetrating it slowly, and really quite gently.
A surprising amount of plants look like dicks.
(of peat) It’s like walking on a giant’s pubes.
All lettuce wants is sex. And violence. Just like all plants. It wants to reproduce, and it wants to kill or damage its rivals so they don’t reproduce.
So many flowers are basically little sex booths.
And she was pulling him towards her, deeper into her, as if he were a flower and she an insect desperate for his cheap, sugary nectar.
Connections between characters morph and take on new dimensions as the book goes on. A few characters are unrealized, such as Fleur, which meant I felt slightly disconnected from them. (My ‘favorite’ in a book stuffed full of unlikable figures was probably Bryony, whose hunger for food, alcohol and shopping seems to be endless.) Likewise, not all the storylines are truly essential, so the book seems aimless for its final third; it definitely could have been shorter and tied together better, perhaps with some flashbacks to the previous generation’s experiences on the island to make the past feel more alive. The spiritual element remains vague, although there is a pleasant touch of magic realism along the way.
Despite these reservations, I truly enjoyed Thomas’s unusual writing. She moves freely between characters’ perspectives but also inserts odd second-person asides asking philosophical questions about wasted time and what is truly important in life. One peculiar little section even imagines the point-of-view of a robin in the garden of Namaste House, with made-up words fit for “The Jabberwocky”: “The man is, as always, incompt and untrig. He sloggers around his rooms in his black and grey ragtails like an elderly magpie.”
I like the range of questions you’re left with as a reader: Is nature malicious? Can we overcome our addictions? How much of who we are is down to our parentage? Does life really just come down to sex? The content of the novel might be reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Andrea Barrett’s science-infused fiction or The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter, but the style is totally different. I can’t even think who it reminds me of; it feels pretty one of a kind to me. Luckily this is Thomas’s sixth novel, so there’s plenty more for me to explore.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.
The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
Lying in a hospice bed, 40-year-old Ivo looks back on his life. Even after just four short decades and a modest career at a garden center, he has plenty to regret. Hard partying and drug use exacerbated his diabetes and prompted kidney failure. His lifestyle also led indirectly to his girlfriend, a nursing student named Mia (the “you” whom he often addresses directly), leaving him. He’s estranged from his sister and the friends he’d been close to since school days, especially Mal. How did he mess up so badly and cut himself off so completely that he’s now dying alone? And how much can he put right before he goes?
There’s plenty of affecting writing in Hannah’s debut novel, as in one of my favorite passages: “The sun chooses this moment to radiate through to me, through me. It feels like – it feels like life. I can sense my corrupt blood bubbling and basking beneath the surface.” I also love how Hannah captures the routines of institutional life – the sights, smells and sounds that come to define Ivo’s circumscribed life:
Round the corner now. Noticeboard up on the right, pinned every inch over with flyers and leaflets. The papers at the bottom lift and flutter in the convection of the heater beneath.
I am lost in a world of regular hums, distant beeping, the periodic reheating of the coffee machine in the corridor, and that steady kazoo [of his next-door neighbor’s breathing].
Nurse Sheila and Amber, the daughter of another hospice patient, are great supporting characters. Sheila’s A to Z game, encouraging Ivo to think of a memory attached to body parts starting with each letter of the alphabet, provides a hokey but effective structure. As Ivo’s condition deteriorates and his thoughts are scrambled by morphine, his narration gradually becomes less coherent and more insular. This means that by the time we reach the conclusion (which somehow manages to be both predictable and shocking at the same time), we aren’t sure whether he’s giving a reliable account of events or imagining things.
Ultimately, I felt confused about what Hannah meant for the book to be. Is this Irvine Welsh lite? Or a Rachel Joyce style tear-jerker? It’s similar in setup to The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, you see, and the remembered relationship with Mia is rather sappy. However, keep in mind that in British English the letter Z is pronounced ‘zed’, so the title doesn’t rhyme, which keeps it from being overly twee. Another barrier to my appreciation of the novel was that I never understood why Ivo was dying. People don’t die of kidney failure nowadays, thanks to dialysis and transplantation. (I have a kidney disease, so I should know!)
I’d recommend this book to fans of Mark Haddon, David Nicholls and Donal Ryan. I’ll follow Hannah’s career and hope he can avoid melodrama and a contrived structure – the two near-pitfalls of this one – in the future.
With thanks to Transworld Books for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Rising Strong by Brené Brown: Brown, a qualitative researcher in the field of social work, encourages readers to embrace vulnerability and transform failure and shame through a simple process of re-evaluating the stories we tell ourselves. The gimmicky terminology and frequent self-referencing grated on me a bit, but I appreciated how the book made me reconsider events from my own life. It’s the ideas that carry Rising Strong, so as long as you come to it expecting a useful tool rather than a literary experience you shouldn’t be disappointed. Genuinely helpful self-help.
Life After You by Lucie Brownlee: With honesty and humor, Brownlee reconstructs the two years following her husband’s sudden death. My sister is still a new widow, so I read this expecting it to resonate with her situation, and it certainly does. I had an issue with the title and marketing, though. When originally published last year, the book had the title Me After You. That’s been changed to sound a little less like a Jojo Moyes novel, but the cover is more chick lit than ever, which doesn’t really match the contents of the book.
The Glass Girl by Sandy Hogarth (& interview): Moving between Australia and England and spanning several decades of Ruth Bishop’s life, this debut novel explores the psychological effects of sexual trauma and betrayal. The middle of the book feels a little meandering, and the chronology is sometimes over-complicated. However, Ruth’s is a warm first-person voice, and the ending hints at welcome resolution to unanswered questions. My favorite aspect of the novel, though, is the frequent observations of the natural world.
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: With multilingual slang and several Sikh characters, Sahota’s second novel illuminates aspects of the South Asian experience that might be unfamiliar. Daily life is a struggle for Tochi, Randeep and Avtar: they work multiple jobs to make ends meet, serving at Crunchy Fried Chicken, cleaning sewers, or building a luxury hotel in Leeds. The fourth protagonist is Randeep’s visa-wife, Narinder. Through flashbacks we discover each one’s past. It’s a harrowing read, but you can’t help but sympathize with the four runaways as they make and dissolve connections over the year.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson: This contemporary ‘cover version’ of The Winter’s Tale links a London financier, a Parisian singer, and a blended family in New Orleans. Winterson creates clear counterparts for each Shakespeare characters, often tweaking names so they are recognizable but more modern. Inventive and true to the themes and imagery (time, adoption; angels, bears, statues) of the original, but ultimately adds little to one’s experience of Shakespeare. I’ll hope for better things from the rest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Still to come: Margaret Atwood on The Tempest, Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler on The Taming of the Shrew, among others.)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week of October 20th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Ostlund’s debut novel explores trauma and loneliness through the past and present of the protagonist, an ESL teacher who has just left his long-term partner, as well as the stories of those he meets. Although set over a six-month period, the novel is so full of flashbacks that it feels dense with the weight of the past. At times this can seem more like a set of short stories, only loosely connected through Aaron. Still, the overarching theme is strong and resonant: “after the parade,” after everything has changed irrevocably, you must keep going, pushing past the sadness to build a new life.
The Best Small Fictions 2015, ed. by Tara L. Masih and Robert Olen Butler: In this very strong anthology of flash fiction, stories range from Tweet length to a few pages, but are always under 1,000 words. Titles and first lines carry a lot of weight. One of the best openers is “I didn’t recognize her without her head” (“Before She Was a Memory,” Emma Bolden). In genre the stories run the gamut from historical fiction to whimsical fantasy. You’ll be introduced to a wealth of fresh and existing talent. There are literally dozens of stand-outs here, but if I had to choose a top 3, they’d be “A Notice from the Office of Reclamation” by J. Duncan Wiley, “The Lunar Deep” by David Mellerick Lynch, and (overall favorite) “Something Overheard” by Yennie Cheung.
For Books’ Sake
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Short, verbless sentences pile up to create exquisite descriptions, as in “Sunset. House on the dunes like a sun-tossed conch. Pelicans thumb-tacked in the wind.” However, I was less sure about the necessity of the bracketed phrases, which seem to represent a Greek chorus giving omniscient commentary, and the use of slang and nicknames can grate. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel.
When All Goes Quiet by Augustinus F. Lodewyks: This religious memoir should interest those who are curious about how spiritual experience can infiltrate everyday life. “When all goes quiet, I know that Heaven is trying to show me its glory,” Lodewyks writes. In autobiographical vignettes, he vividly expresses his mystical visions, particularly those featuring Jesus, the Virgin Mary and angels, who tend to appear in times of crisis and during events of ritual significance like weddings, funerals and religious pilgrimages. Some will still object to the overt proselytizing, especially in the book’s last quarter.
The Blessing of Movement by Deborah Konrad: Konrad’s story is an inspirational memoir about life with disability and caring for dying relatives. Her sister Sandra became a quadriplegic in her twenties. Throughout the book, Konrad investigates the secret strength that underlay “the sunny disposition of the pretty paralyzed woman.” She concludes that it was all about thankfulness, as proven by Sandra’s gratitude journal. Konrad’s own life undeniably gets sidelined, though; more self-reflection would provide a good match for her insights into her sister’s character.
DNA of Mathematics by Mehran Basti: Drawing on his academic specialty in mathematics, Basti explores how scientific theories have been used and misused through history. The book lacks focus due to frequent unrelated asides. It may be difficult to grant credibility to a scientist who dismisses the big bang because it was theorized through “semi-broken scientific methods” and seems to have a personal vendetta against Stephen Hawking. Most importantly, the mathematics that forms the book’s basis is never fully explained.
From Hell to Heaven, One Man’s Journey by Gustav Daffy: This book was inspired by an acrimonious divorce and other family troubles; although Christian faith helped Gustav adjust his thinking, many of the poems still feel like the angry outpourings of a man with an ax to grind. Moreover, formulaic rhyming and poor spelling and grammar mar this overlong collection. It would take a professional copyeditor to hone this into a concise set of linguistically and stylistically acute poems. However, the author’s in-the-moment reactions are easy to relate to.
Shiny New Books
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter: It may seem perverse to twist Emily Dickinson’s words about hope into a reflection on bereavement, but Porter’s exceptional debut does just that: tweak poetic forebears – chiefly Poe’s “The Raven” and Ted Hughes’s Crow – to create a hybrid response to loss. The novella is composed of three first-person voices: Dad, Boys and Crow (the soul of the book: witty, onomatopoeic, often macabre). Dad and his two young sons are adrift in mourning; the boys’ mum died after an unspecified accident in their London flat. The three narratives resemble monologues in a play, with short lines laid out on the page more like stanzas of a poem.
We Love This Book
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan: The Irish author of the novels The Spinning Heart (winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2013) and The Thing About December, returns with 20 jolting, voice-driven short stories suffused with loneliness and anger. Nineteen of the 20 are in the first person, echoing the chorus of voices that made The Spinning Heart so effective. Many of the narrators speak in thick dialect and run-on sentences, which helps to immerse you in the rhythms of Irish speech. In a book full of lonely people, it is the moments of connection – however fleeting – that matter. For example, in “Long Puck,” one of the best stories, a Catholic priest posted to Syria initiates interfaith hurling matches that temporarily lift everyone’s spirits.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
The River by Helen Humphreys: Humphreys has lived along Ontario’s Napanee River for over a decade. I was expecting a blend of personal reflection and natural observations, but instead the book is mostly composed of brief fictional passages illuminating a handful of species. I liked the passages about the heron best – Humphreys successfully imagines the life of a plume hunter and contrasts it with the excitement of two women involved in the foundation of a bird conservation charity. However, much of the book felt like unconnected vignettes, not building to any kind of grander picture of a location.
The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger: The novel opens and closes with a hit-and-run, but in between those momentous peaks it’s a quieter tale of a single father trying to guide his son and daughter into young adulthood in the wilds of Canada’s west and islands. Tom Berry’s work is not cutting trees down but planting them – an interesting adaptation of a traditional woodsman’s activity to a new eco age. I found the story a little sleepy but loved Leipciger’s writing, especially her account of the daily drudgery of manual labor and her descriptions of wilderness scenery.
Decline of the Animal Kingdom by Laura Clarke: Bizarre, in-your-face poetry from a 30-year-old Canadian: business jargon, YouTube videos, fast food…and, yes, animals. Many of the poems feature mules and lions, including weird dialogues between a mule and its supervisor / domestic partner / psychiatrist. With plays on words and sexualized vocabulary, Clarke considers inter-species altruism and the inevitable slide towards extinction. Two favorite lines: “You forget you live parallel to violence” (from “Carnivora”); “The Tasmanian tiger live-tweets its extinction from the Hobart zoo in 1933” (from “Extirpation”).
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh: “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” Lucky for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. He’s nearing retirement age after a career divided between a London hospital and medical missions to Ukraine. The punchy chapters are named after conditions he has treated or observed. Marsh comes across as having a hot temper, exhibiting extreme frustration with NHS bureaucracy. At the same time, he gets very emotional over his patients declining and dying, and experiences profound guilt over operations that go wrong or were ultimately unnecessary.
In the Flesh by Adam O’Riordan: My favorite poems in O’Riordan’s debut collection were about Victorian Manchester, 1910s suffragettes and the Wordsworths, this last based on the author’s year in residence at their Lake District cottage. I also liked “The Corpse Garden” – about the outdoor forensic lab in Knoxville, Tennessee – and a couple of multi-part poems that seem to enliven family history. It’s the vocabulary and alliteration that make these poems; there are only a handful of rhyming couplets.
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle: If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation. I didn’t know she wrote any nonfiction for adults. The Crosswicks books cannot be called simple memoirs, however; there’s so much more going on. In this journal (published 1972) of a summer spent at their Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides.
A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor: My third Taylor – not as good as Mrs. Palfrey, but better than Angel. It’s about the everyday family and romantic entanglements of a small English harbor village in the 1940s. Beth is a preoccupied writer who doesn’t notice that her husband, the local doctor, is carrying on an affair with her best friend, the divorcée Tory, who is also their next-door neighbor. As always, Taylor has great insight into the human psyche and unlikely relationships. The plot is low on thrills for sure, but it’s pleasant reading, especially if you’re on holiday at the seaside (I started reading it on the coast near Dublin).
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris: This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all. Norris spent 20 years away from the faith but gradually made her way back, via the simple Presbyterianism of her Dakota relatives but also through becoming an oblate at a Benedictine monastery – two completely different expressions of the same faith. In few-page essays, she gives each word or phrase a rich backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy, ensuring that it’s not just religious jargon anymore.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt: What The Sisters Brothers did for the Western, this does for the Gothic fairytale. It’s not quite as fun or successful as the previous book, but has a nicely campy Dracula or Jane Eyre feel. Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a compulsive liar, sets out to find adventure and romance as undermajordomo of a castle in the quaint German countryside. Here he meets pickpockets, a periodically insane baron, a randy maiden, and a strapping rival who’s a soldier in the absurdist local conflict. DeWitt’s understated humor is not as clearly on display here; there’s also, strangely, quite a bit of sex.
Sentenced to Life by Clive James: James, an Australian critic and all-round man of letters, was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. After a setback in 2013, he’s rallied, but these poems are certainly infused with a sense of imminent mortality. The incessant ABAB rhyming in the early poems set up a jaunty rhythm I didn’t find appropriate to the subject matter; I much prefer the later unrhymed poems. “Plot Points” is my favorite, artfully linking disparate historical moments.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California. Now, only a desperate remnant remains in this waterless wasteland. Luz and Ray squat in a starlet’s abandoned mansion and live off of Luz’s modeling money – she was once the environmental movement’s poster child, “Baby Dunn.” When they take charge of a baby called Ig, however, their priorities change. They set off for the strangely beautiful sea of dunes, the Amargosa, leaving behind the ‘frying pan’ of exposure to the elements for the ‘fire’ of a desert cult. There is some absolutely beautiful prose. This is the book that California (Edan Lepucki) wanted to be.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: U. is a corporate anthropologist in London, coming off the success of the Koob–Sassen contract and facing the blank page of the Great Report he’s tasked with writing. Not much happens here; the book is more about his anthropological observations and the things he fixates on, like oil spills, a sabotaged parachutist, and Satin Island – a place he encounters in a dream and then, by word association, likens to Staten Island, a destination he doesn’t quite make it to. For me the most interesting parts were about narrative. I found this too clever for its own good; not Booker Prize material.