Lara Feigel’s memoir Free Woman was one of my favourite books of 2018. In it she interrogates conventions of marriage and motherhood while rereading the works of Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962), in particular, dramatizes women’s struggles to combine their disparate roles into a harmonious identity. Drawing inspiration from Lessing as well as from another early feminist novel, The Group by Mary McCarthy (more on this below), Feigel’s debut novel crafts a kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018.
Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly and Priss met at a picnic while studying at Oxbridge and decided to rent a house together. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have branched in slightly different directions. Kay is an English teacher but has always wanted to be a novelist like her American husband, Harald. Priss is a stay-at-home mother excited to be opening a café. Polly, a gynaecological consultant at St Thomas’s Hospital, is having an affair with a married colleague. Helena, a single documentary presenter, decides she wants to have a baby and pursues insemination via a gay friend.
Narrating her friends’ lives as well as her own is Stella, an editor at a Faber-like publishing house whose director (also Helena’s uncle) is under investigation for sexual misconduct. Stella, a stand-in for the author, has split from her husband and has a new baby via IVF as well as an older child; this hint of autofiction lends the book an intimacy it might have lacked with an omniscient perspective. Although you have to suspend disbelief in a few places – could Stella really know so many details of her friends’ lives? – it feels apt that she can only understand these other women in relation to herself. Her voice can be catty, but is always candid, and Feigel is astute on the performative aspects of femininity.
Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by about 20 years and you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. It is a sexually frank and socially engaged narrative that arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The characters express guilt over lamenting middle-class problems while there is such suffering in the wider world – we glimpse this in Polly’s work with African girls who have undergone genital mutilation. The diversity is limited to Black boyfriends, Helena’s bisexuality, and the fact that one group member decides not to have children (that 1 in 5 is statistically accurate).
The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group, though, is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Stella even sees herself as an amateur anthropologist:
So here we are then. Five exact contemporaries who once shared a cluttered, thin-walled student house off the Cowley Road, all privileged, white, middle-class, all vestigial hangers-on, left over from an era when we received free educations at our elite university and then emerged into a world where we could still just about find jobs and buy flats, provided with opportunities for selfishness and leisure by our cleaners and our childminders. Nothing very eventful happens to us, but that gives more room for the ethnographer in me to get to work.
Feigel previously wrote two group biographies of cultural figures of the Second World War era, and she applies that precise skill set – capturing the atmosphere of a time period; noting similarities but also clear distinctions between people – to great effect here. You’ll recognize aspects of yourself in all of the characters, and be reminded of how grateful you are for (or how much you wish you had) friends whom you know will always be there for you. It’s an absorbing and relevant novel that ranks among my few favourites of the year so far.
The Group was published by JM Originals (John Murray) on July 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
See Susan’s review also.
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
As soon as I heard about Lara Feigel’s forthcoming novel, I unearthed the Mary McCarthy paperback I’d plucked from Bookbarn’s shelves in 2017. I decided to read Feigel’s first, lest it feel less than fresh; perhaps inevitably, McCarthy’s felt dated in comparison. I had trouble engaging with it as a whole, but still enjoyed contrasting the two books.
McCarthy focuses on eight girls from the Vassar class of ’33. Kay, the first to marry, has an upper-crust New York City wedding one week after graduation. But after Harald loses his theatre job, his cocktail habit and their luxury apartment soon deplete Kay’s Macy’s salary. Meanwhile, Dottie loses her virginity to Harald’s former neighbour in a surprisingly explicit scene. Contraception is complicated, but not without comic potential – as when Dottie confuses a pessary and a peccary. Career, romance, and motherhood are all fraught matters.
Feigel borrows the names of four of her five group members, plus those of some secondary characters, from McCarthy, with Stella a new character perhaps inspired in part by McCarthy’s Libby, who wants to work with books but, after delivering an earnest report on a 500-page pot-boiler, hears that “we really have no work that you’re uniquely qualified to do. You’re one of thousands of English majors who come pouring out of the colleges every June, stage-struck to go into publishing.” (That sure sounds familiar!)
Narrowing the circle and introducing a first-person narrator were wise choices that made Feigel’s version more accessible. Both, though, are characterized by forthright commentary and a shrewd understanding of human motivations. I’ll try again with McCarthy’s The Group someday, but for now I’m planning to pick up her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Note: Mary McCarthy is one of the authors profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp.
I’m a Six Degrees regular now: this is my sixth month taking part. This time (see Kate’s introductory post) we have all started with Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved (2003). Narrated by a professor and set between the 1970s and 1990s, it’s about two New York City couples – academics and artists – and the losses they suffer over the years.
#1 The readalike I chose when I read What I Loved for a Valentine’s Day post in 2017 was The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky, which I’d covered for Foreword Reviews in 2015 (see here); it shares the themes of modern art and mental illness.
#2 Death + a “bishop” leads me to Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which vies with My Ántonia for the top spot from the six novels I’ve read so far by Willa Cather. It’s set in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the nineteenth century. I read it shortly after my trip to Santa Fe for the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America conference in the summer of 2005.
#3 Although I don’t think I’ve read a Lawrence novel in the past 15 years, I still enjoy reading about him, e.g. in Frieda by Annabel Abbs. My next biographical novel that includes DHL and his wife as characters will be Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore (1994).
#4 Although it’s mostly set in London among university friends now in their late thirties or early forties, a few late scenes of The Group by Lara Feigel (brand new; I’ll be reviewing it in full later this month) are set in Zennor, Cornwall.
#5 The other book I’ve read by Lara Feigel is Free Woman, her bibliomemoir about marriage, motherhood and the works of Doris Lessing. My favorite of the six books I’ve read so far by Lessing is The Grass Is Singing (1950), set on a farm in Zimbabwe.
#6 The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (1883) is one of the novels I wrote about for my MA dissertation on female characters with unconventional religious views in the Victorian novel. In particular, I looked at the intersection of dissenting religious fiction and the “New Woman” novels that paved the way for Modernism. This is an obscure classic well worth picking up for its early feminist perspective; Schreiner was also a socialist and anti-war campaigner.
My chain has featured only books by women again this month: a few classics, a historical novel with real people in it, an updated modern classic (the Feigel – I’ll discuss its debt to Mary McCarthy’s The Group in my review), and more. The themes have included art, death, feminism, friendship, and religion.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! Next month’s starting book is How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.
Have you read any of my selections?
Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.
She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.
Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.
Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)
Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.
Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.
My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”
A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.
I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”
In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.
By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)
And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.
Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.
I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).
I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.
I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago.
These selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 5-star ratings of the year, plus a handful of 4.5 and high 4 ones.
Faces in the Water by Janet Frame: The best inside picture of mental illness I’ve read. Istina Mavet, in and out of New Zealand mental hospitals between ages 20 and 28, undergoes regular shock treatments. Occasional use of unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness prose is an effective way of conveying the protagonist’s terror. Simply stunning writing.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. We hear from leading lights in the town’s history and Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. A charming way to celebrate where you come from with all its magic and mundanity.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. Christianity and colonialism have a lot to answer for. A masterpiece.
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing: Begins with the words “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. The breakdown of a marriage and the failure of a farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world as she’s known it. More impressive than the plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is a writer and academic who has stepped up to care for her late friend’s aging Great Dane, Apollo. It feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heartwarming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
There There by Tommy Orange: Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least. The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, so gradually we work out the links between everyone. Hugely impressive.
In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson: The best story collection I read this year. Themes include motherhood, death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. Gentle humor and magic tempers the sadness. I especially liked “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour lunch break walk.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, this is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: The saga of conjoined twins born of a union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon in 1954. Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background. I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories full of coincidences, minor characters, and humor and tragedy.
Extinctions by Josephine Wilson: The curmudgeonly antihero is widower Frederick Lothian, at age 69 a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s the middle of a blistering Australian summer and he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. He’s a retired engineering expert, but he’s been much less successful in his personal life.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington: I’d had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing. The verse is rooted in the everyday. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re still mourning Mary Oliver.
Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi: The third collection by the Welsh–Gujarati poet and dancer is vibrant and boldly feminist. The tone is simultaneously playful and visionary, toying with readers’ expectations. Several of the most arresting poems respond to the #MeToo movement. She also excels at crafting breath-taking few-word phrases.
Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes: A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. Other themes include pre-smartphone life and a marriage falling apart. There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice: MacNeice wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. Everyday life for the common worker muffles political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. He reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose. Still utterly relevant.
Sky Burials by Ben Smith: I discovered Smith through the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role poetry might play in environmental activism. This collection shares that environmentalist focus. Many of the poems are about birds. There’s a sense of history but also of the future.
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: During a bout of depression, Haupt decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. A charming record of bird behavior and one woman’s reawakening, but also a bold statement of human responsibility to the environment.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay: Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home. There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic.
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay: Jackie Kay was born out of the brief relationship between a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in Aberdeen in the early 1960s. This memoir of her search for her birth parents is a sensitive treatment of belonging and (racial) identity. Kay writes with warmth and a quiet wit. The nonlinear structure is like a family photo album.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: An excellent addiction memoir that stands out for its smooth and candid writing. For nearly 20 years, Knapp was a high-functioning alcoholic who maintained jobs in Boston-area journalism. The rehab part is often least exciting, but I appreciated how Knapp characterized it as the tortured end of a love affair.
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. Simply a terrific read.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: A memoir of growing up in a highly conservative religious setting, but not Evangelical Christianity as you or I have known it. Her father, a married Catholic priest, is an unforgettable character. This is a poet’s mind sparking at high voltage and taking an ironically innocent delight in dirty and iconoclastic talk.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: For two months in 1973, Matthiessen joined a zoologist on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau in hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard. Recently widowed, Matthiessen put his Buddhist training to work as he pondered impermanence and acceptance. The writing is remarkable.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne: Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder is what makes us human. He believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to awe by encouraging us to pay close attention. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, this is like a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages.
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross: When she was training to become a doctor, Montross was assigned an older female cadaver, Eve, who taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a poet, as evident in this lyrical, compassionate exploration of working with the dead.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: An excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. Orwell works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive, while the pen portraits are glistening.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter: In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. A travel classic worth rediscovering.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale: In the late 1940s Teale and his wife set out on a 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track the autumn. Teale was an early conservationist. His descriptions of nature are gorgeous, and the scientific explanations are at just the right level for the average reader.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: This blew me away. Reading this nonlinear memoir of trauma and addiction, you’re amazed the author is still alive, let alone a thriving writer. The writing is truly dazzling, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality. The watery metaphors are only part of what make it unforgettable.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
My best discoveries of the year: The poetry of Tishani Doshi; Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Strout (whom I’d read before but not fully appreciated until this year); also, the classic nature writing of Edwin Way Teale.
The authors I read the most by this year: Margaret Atwood and Janet Frame (each: 2 whole books plus parts of 2 more), followed by Doris Lessing (2 whole books plus part of 1 more), followed by Miriam Darlington, Paul Gallico, Penelope Lively, Rachel Mann and Ben Smith (each: 2 books).
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: John Englehardt, Elizabeth Macneal, Stephen Rutt, Gail Simmons and Lara Williams.
My proudest reading achievement: A 613-page novel in verse (Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly) + 2 more books of over 600 pages (East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese).
Best book club selection: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay was our first nonfiction book and received our highest score ever.
Some best first lines encountered this year:
- “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?” (Love Story by Erich Segal)
- “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” (Away by Jane Urquhart)
- “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” (from The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff)
The downright strangest book I read this year: Lanny by Max Porter
The 2019 books everybody else loved (or so it seems), but I didn’t: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, Underland by Robert Macfarlane, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The year’s major disappointments: Cape May by Chip Cheek, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer, Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, ed. Anna Hope et al., Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken, Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer, The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, The Knife’s Edge by Stephen Westaby and Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
The worst book I read this year: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Some statistics on my 2019 reading:
(As usual, fiction and nonfiction are neck and neck. I read a bit more poetry this year than last.)
Male author: 39.4%
Female author: 58.9%
Nonbinary author (the first time this category has been applicable for me): 0.85%
Multiple genders (anthologies): 0.85%
(I’ve said this the past three years: I find it interesting that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading; I have never consciously set out to read more books by women.)
Print books: 89.7%
(My e-book reading has been declining year on year, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling; also, increasingly, I find that I just prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Work in translation: 7.2%
(Lower than I’d like, but better than last year’s 4.8%.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 36.8%
- Public library: 21.3%
- Secondhand purchase: 13.8%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 9.2%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 7.8%
- Gifts: 4.3%
- University library: 2.9%
- New purchase (usually at a bargain price): 2.9%
- Church theological library: 0.8%
- Borrowed: 0.2%
(Review copies accounted for over a third of my reading; I’m going to scale way back on this next year. My library reading was similar to last year’s; my e-book reading decreased in general; I read more books that I either bought new or got for free.)
Number of unread print books in the house: 440
(Last thing I knew the figure was more like 300, so this is rather alarming. I blame the free mall bookshop, where I volunteer every Friday. Most weeks I end up bringing home at least a few books, but it’s often a whole stack. Surely you understand. Free books! No strings attached!)
Today would have been Doris Lessing’s 100th birthday; she in fact died in 2013. Reading Lara Feigel’s Free Woman last year encouraged me to try more from Lessing, and I’m glad that I did so this month. I started with The Fifth Child, a horror novella for R.I.P., followed by the novel Lessing brought with her when she left Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England.
The Grass Is Singing (1950)
I had trouble believing that this novel a) was Lessing’s debut and b) is now nearly 70 years old. It felt both fresh and timeless, and I could see how it has inspired writing about the white experience in Africa ever since, especially a book like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, in which an English farmer and his son are haunted by the violent death of the young man’s mother back in Zambia 10 years ago.
For The Grass Is Singing begins with two sly words, “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. It’s a tease because in one sense there’s no mystery to this at all: we know from the first lines what happened to Mary. And yet we are drawn in, wondering why she was killed and how the Turners went from an idealistic young couple enthusiastic about their various money-making schemes – a shop, chickens, tobacco – to a jaded, distant pair struggling for their health, both mental and physical.
The breakdown of their marriage and the failure of their farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail, all while exposing (with neither judgment nor approval) how Anglos felt about the natives at that time.
There’s a sense in which this was all fated: Dick is weak, someone Mary pities rather than loves and respects; and Mary’s mixed-up feelings toward her black servants – fear, contempt, curiosity and attraction – were bound to lead to an explosion. The land itself seems to be conspiring against them, too, or is at least indifferent to their plans and dreams.
So many passages struck me for their effortless profundity. I cringed to see myself so clearly in Mary’s boredom and restlessness, along with her ambivalence about the idea of motherhood: “She hated the idea of a baby, when she thought of its helplessness, its dependence, the mess, the worry. But it would give her something to do.”
This was the fifth full-length book I’ve read by Lessing, and by far the best.
Alas, I had a Lessing DNF this month, too:
The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
This was shelved in with the memoirs in The Bookshop, Wigtown. I’m not blaming Mr. Bythell or his staff, as this would be a very easy shelving error to make, even for those well versed in literature. But I was disappointed to realize that it’s actually one of Lessing’s detached, dreamy dystopian novels. I tried really hard with this but couldn’t make it past page 48. There’s just not much detail to latch onto. You know that it is set in a vague but believable near future (London?) in which there has been political and social breakdown, followed by gangs, looting and fighting. The narrator hides out in her apartment and is able to live a fairly normal life (“We can get used to anything at all”), at least until an adolescent girl named Emily Cartright is deposited into her care. The novel still feels relevant – the comments on rumor and gossip being as important as news; the sense that the narrator’s generation has ruined things for Emily’s generation and should accept guilt and responsibility – but there is just no plot to speak of.
Next up for me from Lessing’s works will be at least one of her heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels.
This is my second year participating in R.I.P. – Readers Imbibing Peril, now in its 14th year. I assembled a lovely pile of magical or spooky reads to last me through October and noticed they were almost all by women, so I decided to make it an all-female challenge (yes, even with a Dahl title – see below) this year. I’m in the middle of another book and have a few more awaiting me, but with just two weeks left in the month I don’t know if I’ll manage to follow up this post with a Part II. At any rate, these first four were solid selections: classic ghost stories, children’s fantasy, a horror novella about an evil child, and an Arctic chiller.
Fear: Tales of Terror and Suspense (selected by Roald Dahl) (2017)
“Spookiness is, after all, the real purpose of the ghost story. It should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.”
I was sent this selection of Dahl-curated ghost stories as part of a book bundle in advance of a blog tour for Roald Dahl Day last year. For now I’ve read just the five stories by women, and will polish off the rest next year.
This collection originated from a television series on ghost stories that Dahl proposed for the American market in 1958 (the pilot was poorly received and it never got made). For his research he read nearly 750 ghost stories and whittled them down to the top 24. Women authors dominated early on in the selection process, but by the end the genders came out nearly even, with 13 men and 11 women. It’s disappointing, then, that only five of the 14 stories included here are by women – one of whom gets two entries, so there’s just four female authors recognized. And this even though Dahl claims that, when it comes to ghost stories, “it is the women who have written some of the very best ones.”
Any road, these are the five stories I read, all of which I found suitably creepy, though the Wharton is overlong. Each one pivots on a moment when the narrator realizes that a character they have been interacting with is actually dead. Even if you’ve seen the twist coming, there’s still a little clench of the heart when you have it confirmed by a third party.
“Harry” and “Christmas Meeting” by Rosemary Timperley: A little girl who survived a murder attempt is reclaimed by her late brother; a woman meets a century-dead author one lonely holiday – I liked that in this one each character penetrates the other’s time period.
“The Corner Shop” by Cynthia Asquith: An inviting antique shop is run by two young women during the day, but by a somber old man in the evenings. He likes to give his customers a good deal to atone for his miserly actions of the past.
“The Telephone” by Mary Treadgold: A man continues communicating with his dead ex-wife via the phone line.
“Afterward” by Edith Wharton: An American couple settles in a home in Dorset, and the husband disappears, after a dodgy business deal, in the company of a mysterious stranger.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
This was my second attempt with the late Le Guin, who would be turning 90 on the 21st; I didn’t get far at all with a buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness last year. I enjoyed this a fair bit more, perhaps because it’s meant for children – I reckon I would have liked it most when I was ages nine to 11 and obsessed with various series of fantasy novels featuring dragons.
Long before Harry Potter was a glimmer, this was the archetypal story of a boy wizard learning magic at school. Ged meets many cryptic mentors and realizes that naming a thing gives you power over it. In his rivalry with the other boys, he accidentally releases a shadow beast and has to try to gain back control of it. It’s slightly difficult to keep on top of all the names and places (Le Guin created a whole archipelago, which you can see in the opening map) and I found my interest waning after the halfway point, but I did love the scene of Ged fighting with a dragon.
A favorite passage: “But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on the act. … A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world.”
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (1988)
Shelve this alongside We Need to Talk about Kevin as a book to make you rethink having kids. Harriet and David Lovatt buy a large Victorian house within commuting distance of London and dream of filling it with children – six, eight; however many. Their first four children are all they’d hoped for, if not spaced out as much as they intended. The Lovatts enjoy hosting the extended family at Easter and Christmas and during the summer holidays. Although there are good-natured jokes about the couple’s fertility, everyone enjoys the cozy, bustling atmosphere. “The Lovatts were a happy family. It was what they had chosen and what they deserved.”
[MILD SPOILERS ENSUE]
Everything changes with pregnancy #5, which is different right from the off. This “savage thing inside her” is kicking Harriet black and blue from the inside and grown to full term by eight months. When Ben is born Harriet thinks, “He’s like a troll, or a goblin.” Like a succubus, he sucks her dry, biting her nipples black and blue; he screams and thrashes non-stop; he’s freakishly strong and insatiably hungry. He strangles house pets and eats a raw chicken with his bare hands. Although he learns basic language and social skills from watching his older siblings and mimicking his idols from a motorcycle gang, something in him is not human. Yet Harriet cannot bear to leave Ben to rot in an institution.
At first I wondered if this was a picture of an extremely autistic child, but Lessing makes the supernatural element clear. “We are being punished,” Harriet says to David. “For presuming … we could be happy.” I think I was waiting for a few more horrific moments and a climactic ending, whereas Lessing almost normalizes Ben, making him part of a gang of half-feral youths who rampage around late-1980s Britain (and she took up his story in a sequel, Ben in the World). But I raced through this in just a few days and enjoyed the way dread overlays the fable-like simplicity of the family’s early life.
Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (2010)
I read Paver’s Thin Air as part of last year’s R.I.P. challenge and it was very similar: a 1930s setting, an all-male adventure, an extreme climate (in that case: the Himalayas). Most of Dark Matter is presented as a journal written by Jack Miller, a lower-class lad who wanted to become a physicist but had to make a living as a clerk instead. He feels he doesn’t truly belong among the wealthier chaps on this Arctic expedition, but decides this is his big chance and he’s not going to give it up.
Even as the others drop out due to bereavement and illness, he stays the course, continuing to gather meteorological data and radio it back to England from this bleak settlement in the far north of Norway. For weeks his only company is a pack of sled dogs, and his grasp on reality becomes shaky as he begins to be visited by the ghost of a trapper who was tortured to death nearby – “the one who walks again.” Paver’s historical thrillers are extremely readable. I tore through this, yet never really found it scary.
Note: This book is the subject of the Bookshop Band song “Steady On” (video here).
And, alas, three DNFs:
The Wych Elm by Tana French – French writes really fluid prose and inhabits the mind of a young man with admirable imagination. I read the first 100 pages and skimmed another 50 and STILL hadn’t gotten to the main event the blurb heralds: finding a skull in the wych elm in the garden at Ivy House. I kept thinking, “Can we get on with it? Let’s cut to the chase!” I have had French’s work highly recommended so may well try her again.
The Hoarder by Jess Kidd – Things in Jars was terrific; I thought Kidd’s back catalogue couldn’t fail to draw me in. This was entertaining enough that I made it to page 152, if far too similar to Jars (vice versa, really, as this came first; ghosts/saints only the main character sees; a transgender landlady/housekeeper); I then found that picking it back up didn’t appeal at all. Maud Drennan is a carer to a grumpy giant of a man named Cathal Flood whose home is chock-a-block with stuff. What happened to his wife? And to Maud’s sister? Who cares!
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell – Purcell is now on her third Gothic novel in three years. I had a stab at her first and it was distinctly okay. I read the first 24 pages and skimmed to p. 87. Reminiscent of The Shadow Hour, The Familiars, etc.
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
April was something of a lackluster case for my two monthly challenges: two slightly disappointing books were partially read (and partially skimmed), and two more that promise to be more enjoyable were not finished in time to review in full.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)
When Hazel Motes, newly released from the Army, arrives back in Tennessee, his priorities are to get a car and to get laid. In contrast to his preacher grandfather, “a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger,” he founds “The Church Without Christ.” Heaven, hell and sin are meaningless concepts for Haze; “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything,” he declares. But his vociferousness belies his professed indifference. He’s particularly invested in exposing Asa Hawkes, a preacher who vowed to blind himself, but things get complicated when Haze is seduced by Hawkes’s 15-year-old illegitimate daughter, Sabbath – and when his groupie, eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, steals a shrunken head from the local museum and decides it’s just the new Jesus this anti-religion needs. O’Connor is known for her very violent and very Catholic vision of life. In a preface she refers to this, her debut, as a comic novel, but I found it bizarre and unpleasant and only skimmed the final two-thirds after reading the first 55 pages.
In progress: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959) – I love to read ‘on location’ when I can, so this was a perfect book to start during a weekend when I visited Stroud, Gloucestershire for the first time.* Lee was born in Stroud and grew up there and in the neighboring village of Slad. I’m on page 65 and it’s been a wonderfully evocative look at a country childhood. The voice reminds me slightly of Gerald Durrell’s in his autobiographical trilogy.
*We spent one night in Stroud on our way home from a short holiday in Devon so that I could see The Bookshop Band and member Beth Porter’s other band, Marshes (formerly Beth Porter and The Availables) live at the Prince Albert pub. It was a terrific night of new songs and old favorites. I also got to pick up my copy of the new Marshes album, When the Lights Are Bright, which I supported via an Indiegogo campaign, directly from Beth.
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas (2017)
Joan Ashby’s short story collection won a National Book Award when she was 21 and was a bestseller for a year; her second book, a linked story collection, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In contravention of her childhood promise to devote herself to her art, she marries Martin Manning, an eye surgeon, and is soon a mother of two stuck in the Virginia suburbs. Two weeks before Daniel’s birth, she trashes a complete novel. Apart from a series of “Rare Babies” stories that never circulate outside the family, she doesn’t return to writing until both boys are in full-time schooling. When younger son Eric quits school at 13 to start a computer programming business, she shoves an entire novel in a box in the garage and forgets about it.
Queasy feelings of regret over birthing parasitic children – Daniel turns out to be a fellow writer (of sorts) whose decisions sap Joan’s strength – fuel the strong Part I, which reminded me somewhat of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in that the protagonist is trying, and mostly failing, to reconcile the different parts of her identity. However, this debut novel is indulgently long, and I lost interest by Part III, in which Joan travels to Dharamshala, India to reassess her relationships and career. I skimmed most of the last 200 pages, and also skipped pretty much all of the multi-page excerpts from Joan’s fiction. At a certain point it became hard to sympathize with Joan’s decisions, and the narration grew overblown (“arc of tragedy,” “tortured irony,” etc.) [Read instead: Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin]
Page count: 523
In progress: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, a 613-page historical novel in verse narrated by a semi-literate servant from Stroud, then a cloth mill town. I’d already committed to read it for a Nudge/New Books magazine review, having had my interest redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize, but it was another perfect choice for a weekend that involved a visit to that part of Gloucestershire. Once you’re in the zone, and so long as you can guarantee no distractions, this is actually a pretty quick read. I easily got through the first 75 pages in a couple of days.
Next month’s plan: As a doorstopper Annabel and I are going to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (636 pages, or roughly 20 pages a day for the whole month of May). Join us if you like! I’m undecided about a classic, but might choose between George Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola.
Two nonfiction books: a frank account of an abortion; clutter-busting techniques.
Two novels: amusing intellectual fare featuring a big dog or the Parisian Surrealists.
Happening by Annie Ernaux (2000; English translation, 2019)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Ernaux writes. In 1963, when she was 23 and living in a student residence in Rouen, she realized she was pregnant. An appointment with a gynecologist set out the facts starkly: “Pregnancy certificate of: Mademoiselle Annie Duchesne. Date of delivery: 8 July, 1964. I saw summer, sunshine. I tore up the certificate.” Abortion was illegal in France at that time. Ernaux tried to take things into her own hands – “plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career” – but couldn’t go through with it. Instead she went to the home of a middle-aged nurse she’d heard about…
This very short book (just 60-some pages) is told in a matter-of-fact style – apart from the climactic moment when her pregnancy ends: “It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It’s such a garish image, almost cartoonish, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Mostly, Ernaux reflects on memory and the reconstruction of events. I haven’t read many nonfiction accounts of abortion/miscarriage and for that reason found this interesting, but it was perhaps too brief and detached for me to be fully engaged.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
“Does something bad happen to the dog?” We animal lovers are wary when approaching a book about a pet. Nunez playfully anticipates that question as she has her unnamed female narrator reflect on her duty of care to her dead friend’s dog. The narrator is a writer and academic – like her late friend, a Bellovian womanizer who recently committed suicide, leaving behind two ex-wives, a widow, and Apollo the aging Great Dane. She addresses the friend directly as “you” for almost the whole book, which unfolds – in a similar style to Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – via quotations, aphorisms, and stories from literary history as well as mini-incidents from a life.
This won the 2018 National Book Award in the USA and is an unashamedly high-brow work whose intertextuality comes through in direct allusions to many classic works of autofiction (Coetzee, Knausgaard and Lessing) and/or doggy lit (Ackerley; Coetzee again – Disgrace). As Apollo starts to take up more physical, mental and emotional space in the narrator’s life, she waits for a miracle that will allow her to keep him despite an eviction notice and muses on lots of questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Why does animal suffering pain us so much (especially compared to human suffering)? I was impressed: it feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heart-warming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin (2019)
What with all the debate over Marie Kondo’s clutter-reducing tactics, the timing is perfect for this practical guide to culling and organizing all the stuff that piles up around us at home and at work. Unlike the rest of Rubin’s self-help books, this is not a narrative but a set of tips – 150 of them! It’s not so much a book to read straight through as one to keep at your bedside and read a few pages to summon up motivation for the next tidying challenge.
Famously, Kondo advises one to ask whether an item sparks joy. Rubin’s central questions are more down-to-earth: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? With no index, the book is a bit difficult to navigate; you just have to flip through until you find what you want. The advice seems in something of a random order and can be slightly repetitive. But since this is really meant as a book of inspiration, I think it will be a useful jumping-off point for anyone trying to get on top of clutter. I plan to work through the closet checklist before I pass the book to my sister – who’s dealing with a basement full of stuff after she and her second husband merged their households. If I could add one page, it would be a flowchart of what to do with unwanted stuff that corresponds to the latest green recommendations.
With thanks to Two Roads for the free copy for review.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (2019)
This novel about Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray is in the same vein as The Paris Wife, Z, Loving Frank and Frieda: all of these have sought to rescue a historical woman from the shadow of a celebrated, charismatic male and tell her own fascinating life story. Scharer captures the bohemian atmosphere of 1929–30 Paris in elegant but accessible prose. Along with the central pair we meet others from the Dada group plus Jean Cocteau, and get a glimpse of Josephine Baker. The novel is nearly 100 pages too long, I think, such that my interest in the politics of the central relationship – Man becomes too possessive and Lee starts to act out, longing for freedom again – started to wane.
Miller was a photographer as well as a model and journalist, and this is an appropriately visual novel that’s interested in appearances, lighting and what gets preserved for posterity. It’s also fairly sexually explicit for literary fiction, sometimes unnecessarily so, so keep that in mind if it’s likely to bother you. I especially enjoyed the brief flashes of Lee at other points in her life: in London during the Blitz, photographing the aftermath of the war in Germany (there’s a famous image of her in Hitler’s bathtub), and hoping she’s more than just a washed-up alcoholic in the 1960s. It would be a boon to have a prior interest in or some knowledge of the Surrealists.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?