Reading Ireland Month is hosted each March by Cathy of 746 Books. This year I read works by four Irish women: a meditation on birds and craft, hard-hitting poems about body issues, autofiction that incorporates biography and translation to consider the shape of women’s lives across the centuries, and a novel that jets between Hong Kong and Scotland. Two of these were sent to me as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. I have some Irish music lined up to listen to (Hallow by Duke Special, At Swim by Lisa Hannigan, Chop Chop by Bell X1, Magnetic North by Iain Archer) and I’m ready to tell you all about these four books.
handiwork by Sara Baume (2020)
Back in February 2016, I reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, for Third Way magazine. A dark story of a middle-aged loner and his adopted dog setting off on a peculiar road trip, it was full of careful nature imagery. “I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things,” the narrator, Ray, states. The same might be said of Baume, who is a visual artist as well as an author and put together this gently illuminating book over the course of 2018, at the same time as she was working on several sculptural installations. In short sections of a paragraph or two, or sometimes no more than a line, she describes her daily routines in her home workspaces: in the morning she listens to barely audible talk radio as she writes, while the afternoons are for carving and painting.
Working with her hands is a family tradition passed down from her grandfather and father, who died in the recent past – of lung cancer from particles he was exposed to at the sandstone quarry where he worked. Baume has a sense of responsibility for how she spends her time and materials. Concern about waste is at odds with a drive for perfection: she discarded her first 100 plaster birds before she was happy with the series used to illustrate this volume. Snippets of craft theory, family memories, and trivia about bird migration and behaviour are interspersed with musings on what she makes. The joy of holding a physical object in the hand somehow outweighs that of having committed virtual words to a hard drive.
Despite the occasional lovely line, this scattered set of reflections doesn’t hang together. The bird facts, in particular, feel shoehorned in for symbolism, as in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. It’s a shame, as from the blurb I thought this book couldn’t be better suited to my tastes. Ultimately, as with Spill, Baume’s prose doesn’t spark much for me.
“Most of the time spent making is spent, in fact, in the approach.”
“I must stop once the boredom becomes intolerable, knowing that if I plunge on past this point I will risk arriving at resentment”
“What we all shared – me, my dad, his dad – was a suspicion of modern life, a loathing of fashion, a disappointment with the new technologies and a preference for the ad hoc contraptions of the past”
“The glorious, crushing, ridiculous repetition of life.”
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. handiwork is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (2021)
This audacious debut collection of fleshly poems is the best I’ve come across so far this year. The body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines.
Where did I start?
Yes, with the heart, enlarged,
its chambers stretched through caring.
Oh is it in defiance or defeat, I don’t know,
I eat it anyway, raw, still warm.
The size of my fist, I love it.
(from the opening poem, “Learning to Eat My Mother, where My Mother Is the Teacher”)
Meat avoidance goes beyond principled vegetarianism to become a phobia. Like the female saints, the speaker will deny herself until she achieves spiritual enlightenment.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself.
(from “Alternative Medicine”)
The title phrase comes from “Open Your Mouth,” in which the god Krishna, as a toddler, nourishes his mother with clay. A child feeding its mother reverses the expected situation, which is described in one of the book’s most striking poems, “Researching the Irish Famine.” The site of an old workhouse divulges buried horrors: “Mothers exhausted their own bodies / to produce milk. […] The starving / human / literally / consumes / itself.”
Corpses and meals; body odour and graves. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to this collection, but it also has its lighter moments: the sexy “Paris Syndrome,” the low-stakes anxiety over pleasing one’s mother in “Guest Room,” and the playful closer, “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” (“O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting / bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing”). Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry. Verse readalikes would include The Air Year by Caroline Bird, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. This comes out on the 25th.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2020)
“This is a female text.” In an elegant loop, Ní Ghríofa begins and ends with this line, and uses it as a refrain throughout. What is the text? It is this book, yes, as well as the 18th-century Irish-language poem that becomes an obsession for the author/narrator, “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill; however, it is also the female body, its milk and blood just as significant for storytelling as any ink.
Because the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s, I took her experiences at face value. As the narrative opens in 2012, Ní Ghríofa and her husband have three young sons and life for her is a list of repetitive household tasks that must be completed each day. She donates pumped breast milk for premature babies as a karmic contribution to the universe: something she can control when so much around her she feels she can’t, like frequent evictions and another pregnancy. Reading Eibhlín Dubh’s lament for her murdered husband, contemplating a new translation of it, and recreating her life from paltry archival fragments: these tasks broaden her life and give an intellectual component to complement the bodily one.
My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink. […] I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh.
Ní Ghríofa remembers other times in her life in an impressionistic stream: starting a premed course at university, bad behaviour that culminated in suicidal ideation, a near-collision on a highway, her daughter’s birth by emergency C-section, finally buying a house and making it a home by adopting a stray kitten and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can tell from the precision of her words that Ní Ghríofa started off as a poet, and I loved how she writes about her own life. I had little interest in Eibhlín Dubh’s story, but maybe it’s enough for her to be an example of women “cast once more in the periphery of men’s lives.” It’s a book about women’s labour – physical and emotional – and the traces of it that remain. I recommend it alongside I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Mother Ship by Francesca Segal.
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. A Ghost in the Throat is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell (2004)
This is the earliest work of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read – it was her third novel, following After You’d Gone and My Lover’s Lover (I finally found those two at a charity shop last year and I’m saving them for a rainy day). It took me a long time to get into this one. It’s delivered in bitty sections that race between characters and situations, not generally in chronological order. It’s not until nearly the halfway point that you get a sense of how it all fits together.
Although there are many secondary characters, the two main strands belong to Jake, a young white filmmaker raised in Hong Kong by a bohemian mother, and Stella, a Scottish-Italian radio broadcaster. When a Chinese New Year celebration turns into a stampede, Jake and his girlfriend narrowly escape disaster and rush into a commitment he’s not ready for. In the meantime, Stella gets spooked by a traumatic flash from her childhood and flees London for a remote Scottish hotel. She’s very close to her older sister, Nina, who was deathly ill as a child (O’Farrell inserts a scene I was familiar with from I Am, I Am, I Am, when she heard a nurse outside her room chiding a noisy visitor, “There’s a little girl dying in there”), but now it’s Nina who will have to convince Stella to take the chance at happiness that life is offering.
In the end, this felt like a rehearsal for This Must Be the Place; it has the myriad settings (e.g., here, Italy, Wales and New Zealand are also mentioned) but not the emotional heft. With a setup like this, you sort of know where things are going, don’t you? Despite Stella’s awful secret, she is as flat a character as Jake. Simple boy-meets-girl story lines don’t hold a lot of appeal for me now, if they ever did. Still, the second half was a great ride.
Also, I’ve tried twice over the past year, but couldn’t get further than page 80 in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (2020), a black comedy about two brothers whose farmer father goes bankrupt and gets a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s debut, Orchid & the Wasp, and this second novel is now on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
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, East of Eden 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. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)
Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.
Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.
This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)
At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.
Page count: 602
A few favorite passages:
“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”
“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.
When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins
With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder
Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]
Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”
My luck ran out just east of Eden
Oh, I proved you right
I’m a danger […]
I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure
After five years away, we finally made it back to Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer arts festival held on the grounds of Boughton House, on the Bank Holiday. The festival is a mixture of talks, music, performances and more, and given how much we’d paid and how far we’d traveled just for the one day, we tried to pack in as much as possible.
We started the day with “Beyond Forgiveness,” a presentation by Jo Berry and Pat Magee. Berry’s father, a Tory MP, was killed when the IRA bombed the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984. Magee spent 14 years in prison for his role in the bombing. When he got out of jail, he met Berry at her request and they talked and listened to each other for several hours. For the first time, Magee said, he could see her father as a real person and realized that the IRA had been just as guilty of dehumanizing and misrepresenting people as the English were. Berry, too, felt that “I’d met my enemy and seen his humanity.” The two have now shared a stage more than 200 times, speaking about the value of empathy in healing broken relationships while also addressing imbalances of power that lead to violence.
To my surprise, cookery displays and musical comedy seemed to be the order of the day. A model kitchen is a new addition to the festival, giving celebrity chefs hour-long sessions to demonstrate a particular dish. Jack Monroe, promoting her new book Cooking on a Bootstrap, cooked a sausage lasagna. She made us all laugh with her idea of “the inverse sausage fallacy” – the cheaper a sausage is, the better it tastes because of all the salt, sugar and spices added to cheaper bits of meat. She started writing recipes when she was a single mother on the dole, and so she encouraged audience members to donate nice things you would like to eat, as well as everyday hygiene products, to food banks. For a “What Vegans Eat” session, Brett Cobley (aka EpiVegan) made a pea and asparagus risotto and answered questions about protein sources, egg replacements, plant milks and harder-to-find ingredients.
Uproarious musical comedy came in the form of Harry & Chris, who made up impromptu raps about New Year’s Day, the Teletubbies and phobias, and Flo & Joan, who sang about divorce statistics, unnecessary inventions for women, and sex robots (the show was fairly crude and came with an 18+ warning). The overall musical highlight of the day was Duke Special, a Greenbelt favorite we’ve seen play quite a number of times now. His pop combines his smooth Belfast tenor with music hall and Big Band stylings, and his songs are often drawn from poetry and 1920s–40s songbooks. His latest project, Hallow, is a beautiful set of Michael Longley poems set to music. He played “Another Wren” and “Emily Dickinson” from that album, various covers (including two bizarre ditties by Ivor Cutler), and crowd favorites “Last Night I Nearly Died,” “Freewheel” and “Our Love Goes Deeper than This.” We also sampled performances by Martyn Joseph, Wallis Bird and CC Smugglers.
Duke Special was a good bridge between music and literature. From the literature program I also saw Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg speak on “Things My Dog Has Taught Me about Being a Better Human,” the title of his recent book. (His dog Mitzpah had a special dispensation to join him on stage; no animals are allowed on site otherwise!) The rabbi spoke about lessons in listening, attention, trust and seizing the moment. Mitzi and his previous dog Safi have also given him a connection with the rest of creation. Although he lives in the London suburbs and has an inner-city synagogue, they have accompanied him on long walks in Scotland and Germany. Wittenberg was a warm and witty speaker and I very much liked the sound of his book. It could make a good follow-up to The Power of Dog.
My other festival highlight was Rebecca Stott, in conversation with Radio 4 presenter Malcolm Doney. I read her Costa Prize-winning memoir In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult in April and it’s been one of my stand-out reads of the year so far. The book conveys a huge amount of information about the Exclusive Brethren and Stott’s family history but never loses sight of what is most important: what it was like to be in a cult and have your life defined by its rules and its paranoia about the outside world. Stott remembers 6 a.m. Sunday communion services and her constant terror of being left behind in the Rapture.
Unfortunately, the talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading her book. The interviewer, catering to those who haven’t read the book yet, led her through her whole story bit by bit, and because I’d read it fairly recently it was all familiar. However, Stott spoke wonderfully and was full of wry compassion for her younger self. I was most interested to hear about the book’s aftermath: she’s received 300 letters from ex-Brethren that her daughter is transcribing to send to a Brethren Church archive in Manchester. When asked during a Q&A where she sees cult tendencies today, she mentioned Trump supporters!
Whereas I read In the Days of Rain from the library, I happen to own two Stott books I haven’t read yet, so I cheekily brought along my paperback of Ghostwalk for signing. She was intrigued to see the older cover design and told me she thinks the prose style in her debut novel is much richer than in Rain, and she hopes I’ll like it. I thanked her for the talk, told her how much I’d enjoyed her memoir, and recommended her two books vaguely about cults: Educated by Tara Westover, which she already knew well, having done some events with Westover, and The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, which was new to her (my blog tour review is coming up on Monday). I caught myself using the word “brilliant” three times in speaking about Stott’s work and these other books – nuance and vocabulary alike clearly go out the window when nervously speaking to admired authors!
Some readers of this blog would have been delighted by the event I rushed to straight after Stott’s talk: Jon McGregor giving readings from Reservoir 13, with Sigur Rós-esque backing and interlude music from Haiku Salut. I heard about the police reconstruction with actors from Manchester, and collecting bilberries on the heath in August. Unfortunately, I found it just as dull read aloud as I did when I tried the book last year, and I left early.
During bits of down time I pulled out a Katherine Mansfield story collection I found in a charity shop last week and read “Bank Holiday” and “The Garden Party.” The former is a very short piece whose carnival atmosphere rises to a note of indeterminate striving:
“And up, up the hill come the people, with ticklers and golliwogs, and roses and feathers. Up, up they thrust into the light and heat, shouting, laughing, squealing, as though they were being pushed by something, far below, and by the sun, far ahead of them – drawn up into the full, bright, dazzling radiance to…what?”
It was my first time reading the famous “The Garden Party,” which likewise moves from a blithe holiday mood into something weightier. The Sheridans are making preparations for a lavish garden party dripping with flowers and food. Daughter Laura is dismayed when news comes that a man from the cottages has been thrown from his horse and killed, and thinks they should cancel the event. Everyone tells her not to be silly; of course it will go on as planned. The story ends when, after visiting his widow to hand over leftover party food, she unwittingly sees the man’s body and experiences an epiphany about the simultaneous beauty and terror of life. “Don’t cry,” her brother says. “Was it awful?” “No,” she replies. “It was simply marvellous.” Mansfield is especially good at first and last paragraphs. I’ll read more by her someday.
How did you all spend your Bank Holiday? / How do you plan to spend Labor Day?
Did any reading get done?
I recently sponsored my first book via Unbound, the UK’s crowdfunding publisher. You’re probably familiar with some Unbound titles even if that name doesn’t ring a bell. For instance, you might remember that The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, an Unbound title from 2014, became the first crowdfunded novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I’ve reviewed another previous Unbound title, Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners, and will be participating in the blog tour for Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? in May.
The forthcoming title I’ve chosen to support is Women on Nature by Katharine Norbury, which promises to be a wide-ranging and learned anthology celebrating the tradition of women’s writing about nature (both fiction and non-). I enjoyed Norbury’s first book, The Fish Ladder, which is a memoir in the vein of H Is for Hawk, and also saw her speak at the New Networks for Nature conference in 2016.
I’d only ever crowdfunded music before – albums by The Bookshop Band, Krista Detor, Duke Special and Marc Martel. Beaming internally at feeling like a patroness of the arts after funding my Women on Nature hardback, I kept the smug glow going by signing up to support The Bookshop Band via Patreon (where you can commit to a certain amount per creation, e.g. per music video, and have the option of setting a monthly cap) and to fund an album by their singer/cellist Beth Porter and her band The Availables via Indiegogo.