Last week was one of the biggest weeks in the UK’s publishing year. Even though I’ve cut down drastically on the number of review books I’m receiving in 2020, I still had six on my shelf with release dates last week. Of course, THE biggest title out on the 5th was The Mirror and the Light, the final volume in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which I’m eagerly awaiting from the library – I’m #3 in a holds queue of 34 people, but there are three copies, all showing as “Received at HQ,” so mine should come in any day now.
But for those who are immune to Mantel fever, or just seeking other material, there’s plenty to keep you busy. I give short reviews of five books today: a couple of dysfunctional family stories, two very different graphic novels and some feminist nonfiction.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
(Published by Serpent’s Tail on the 5th; came out in the USA from Houghton Mifflin in October)
Most of the action in Attenberg’s seventh book takes place on one day, as 73-year-old Victor Tuchman, struck down by a heart attack, lies on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital. There’s more than a whiff of Trump about Victor, who has a shadowy mobster past and was recently hit with 11 sexual harassment charges. Forced to face the music for the first time, he fled Connecticut with his wife Barbra, citing the excuse of wanting to live closer to their son Gary in Louisiana. Victor had been abusive to Barbra throughout their marriage, and was just as violent in his speech: he could crush their daughter Alex with one remark on her weight.
So no one is particularly sad to see Victor dying. Alex goes through the motions of saying goodbye and telling her father she forgives him, knowing she doesn’t mean a word. Meanwhile, Gary is AWOL on a work trip to California, leaving his wife Twyla to take his place at Victor’s bedside. Twyla’s newfound piety is her penance for a dark secret that puts her at the heart of the family’s breakdown.
Attenberg spends time with each family member on this long day supplemented by flashbacks, following Alex from bar to bar in downtown New Orleans as she tries to drown her sorrows and exploring other forms of addiction through Barbra (redecorating; not eating or ageing) and Twyla – in a particularly memorable scene, she heaps a shopping cart full of makeup at CVS and makes it all the way to the checkout before she snaps out of it. There’s also an interesting pattern of giving brief glimpses into the lives of the incidental characters whose paths cross with the family’s, including the EMT who took Victor to the hospital.
This is a timely tragicomedy, realistic and compassionate but also marked by a sardonic tone. Although readers only ever see Victor through other characters’ eyes, any smug sense of triumph they may feel about seeing the misbehaving, entitled male brought low is tempered by the extreme sadness of what happens to him after his death. I didn’t love this quite as much as The Middlesteins, but for me it’s a close second out of the four Attenberg novels I’ve read. She’s a real master of the dysfunctional family novel.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011)
(Published for the first time in the UK by Oneworld on the 5th)
Speaking of messed-up families … Growing up in 1980s Atlanta, Dana and Chaurisse both call James Witherspoon their father – but Chaurisse’s mother doesn’t even know that Dana exists. Dana’s mother, however, has always been aware of her husband’s other family. That didn’t stop her from agreeing to a quick marriage over the state line. Jones establishes James’s bigamy in the first line; the rest of the novel is mostly in two long sections, the first narrated by Dana and the second by Chaurisse. Both girls recount how their parents met, as well as giving a tour through their everyday life of high school and boyfriends.
I was eager to read this after enjoying Jones’s Women’s Prize winner, An American Marriage, so much. Initially I liked Dana’s narration as she elaborates on her hurt at being in a secret family. The scene where she unexpectedly runs into Chaurisse at a science fair and discovers their father bought them matching fur coats is a highlight. But by the midpoint the book starts to drag, and Chaurisse’s voice isn’t distinct enough for her narration to add much to the picture. A subtle, character-driven novel about jealousy and class differences, this failed to hold my interest. Alternating chapters from the two girls might have worked better?
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
New graphic novels from SelfMadeHero:
The Mystic Lamb: Admired and Stolen by Harry De Paepe and Jan Van Der Veken
[Translated by Albert Gomperts]
I’ve been to Ghent, Belgium twice. Any visitor will know that one of the city’s not-to-be-missed sights is the 15th-century altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. On our first trip we bought timed tickets to see this imposing and vibrantly colored multi-paneled artwork, which depicts various figures and events from the Bible as transplanted into a typically Dutch landscape. De Paepe gives a comprehensive account of the work’s nearly six-century history.
It’s been hidden during times of conflict or taken away as military spoils; it’s been split into parts and sold or stolen; it narrowly escaped a devastating fire. Overall, there was much more detail here than I needed, and far fewer illustrations than I expected. If you have a special interest in art history, you may well enjoy this. Just bear in mind that, although marketed as a graphic novel, it is mostly text.
Thoreau and Me by Cédric Taling
[Translated by Edward Gauvin]
I can’t seem to get away from Henry David Thoreau in my recent reading. Last year I reviewed for the TLS two memoirs that consciously appropriated the 19th-century environmentalist’s philosophy and language; the other night I found mentions of Thoreau in a Wallace Stegner novel, a new nature book by Lucy Jones, and travel books by Nancy Campbell and Charlie English. So I knew I had to read this debut graphic novel (but is it a memoir or autofiction?) about a Paris painter who is plagued by eco-anxiety and plans to build his own off-grid home in the woods.
Cédric and his middle-class friends are assailed by “white hipster guilt.” A brilliant sequence has a dinner party discussion descend into a cacophony of voices as they list the ethical minefields they face. Though Cédric wishes he were a prepared alpha male with advanced survival skills that could save his family, his main strategy seems to be panic buying cold-weather gear. Thoreau, depicted sometimes as a wolf or faun and always with a thin, tubular mosquito’s nose (like a Socratic gadfly?), comes to him as an invisible friend and guru, with quotes from Walden and his journal appearing in jagged speech bubbles. This was a good follow-up to Jenny Offill’s Weather with its themes of climate-related angst and perceived helplessness. I enjoyed the story even though I found the drawing style slightly grotesque.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copies for review.
And one extra:
The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time to Come Clean about Who Does the Dishes by Sally Howard
(Published by Atlantic Books on the 5th)
I only gave this feminist book about the domestic labor gap a quick skim as, unfortunately, it repeats a lot of the examples and statistics that were familiar to me from works like Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez (e.g. the Iceland women’s strike in the 1970s) and Fair Play by Eve Rodsky. The only chapter that stood out for me somewhat was about the “yummy mummy” stereotype perpetuated by the likes of Jools Oliver and Gwyneth Paltrow.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.
My pristine paperback copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch cost all of £1 at a used bookshop in Henley. Talk about entertainment value for money! Although it took me nearly a month to read, starting with Christmas week, it was more gripping than that timeframe seems to suggest. I read it under a pair of cats in the bitter-cold first week of a Pennsylvania January, then tucked it under my arm for airport queues (no way would it fit in my overstuffed carry-on bag) and finally finished it during my first week of bouncing back from transatlantic jetlag. Somehow Theo Decker’s fictional travels – from New York to Las Vegas and back; to Amsterdam and home again – blended with my sense of having been on a literal journey with the book to make this one of my most memorable reading experiences in years.
That’s not to say that the book was flawless. In fact, I found the first 200 pages or so pretty slow. You almost certainly know the basics of the plot already, but if not, glance away from the rest of this paragraph. Theo, 13, is separated from his mother during a terrorist attack on a New York City museum. Among the dying he encounters an older man – guardian of the pretty red-haired girl Theo had been checking out just moments before – who gives him a ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell antiques. But this is not the only souvenir Theo takes from his ordeal; he also steals the little Dutch masterpiece by Fabritius that appears on the book’s cover. Stumbling around the streets of New York, the shell-shocked Theo undoubtedly resembles a 9/11 victim. As the years pass, he is moved from guardian to guardian, but a few things remain constant: his memory of his mother, his obsession with the painting, and his love for Pippa, that red-haired girl who, like him, was among the survivors.
The aftermath of the attack was the most tedious section for me. It felt like it took forever for Theo’s future to be set in motion, and I thought if I heard him complain of how his head was killing him one more time I might just scream. It’s when Theo gets to Vegas, and specifically when he meets Boris, that the book really takes off. Boris is simply a terrific character. He’s lived all over and has a mixed-up accent that’s part Australian with heavy Slavic overtones. Like Theo, he has an unreliable father who is often too drunk to care what his kid is doing. This leaves the two young teens free to do whatever they want, usually something classified as illegal. Indeed, there’s a lot of drug use in this book, described in the kind of detail that makes you wonder what Tartt was up to during her years at Bennington.
As a young man Theo, back in New York, joins Hobie (of Hobart and Blackwell) in selling antiques both genuine and ersatz, and reconnects with an old friend’s family in a surprising manner. The story of what becomes of the painting was in danger of turning into a clichéd crime caper, yet Tartt manages to transform it into a richly philosophical interrogation of the nature of fate. Theo’s intimate first-person narration makes him the heir first of Dickensian orphans and later of the kind of tortured antiheroes you’d find in a nineteenth-century Russian novel: “I had the queasy sense of my own life … as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.”
Similar to my experience with Of Human Bondage, I found that the latter part of the novel was the best. The last 200 pages are not only the most addictive plot-wise but also the most introspective; all my Post-It flags congregate here. It’s also full of the best examples of Tartt’s distinctive prose. The best way I can describe it is to say it’s like brush strokes: especially in the scenes set in Amsterdam, she’s creating a still life with words. Often this is through sentences listing images, in phrases separated by commas. Here’s a few examples:
Floodlit window. Mortuary glow from the cold case. Beyond the fog-condensed glass, trickling with water, winged sprays of orchids quivered in the fan’s draft: ghost-white, lunar, angelic.
Out on the street: holiday splendor and delirium. Reflections danced and shimmered on black water: laced arcades above the street, garlands of light on the canal boats.
Medieval city: crooked streets, lights draped on bridges and shining off rain-peppered canals, melting in the drizzle. Infinity of anonymous shops, twinkling window displays, lingerie and garter belts, kitchen utensils arrayed like surgical instruments, foreign words everywhere…
Such sentence construction shouldn’t work, yet it does. I’ve never been one to fawn over Donna Tartt, but this is writing I can really appreciate.
[I did take issue with some of the punctuation in the novel, though whether that’s down to Tartt, her editor or the UK publication team I couldn’t say. Take, for instance, this description of a station clerk: “a broad, fair, middle aged woman, pillowy at the bosom and impersonally genial like a procuress in a second rate genre painting.” Another solid allusion to Dutch art, but missing two hyphens if you ask me.]
The Goldfinch contains multitudes. It’s the Dickensian coming-of-age tale of a hero much like David Copperfield who’s “possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted.” It’s a realist record of criminal escapades. It’s a story of unrequited love. It’s a convincing first-hand picture of anxiety, addiction and regret. It has a great road trip, an endearing small dog, and a last line that rivals The Great Gatsby’s (I’ll leave you to experience it for yourself). It’s a meditation on time, fate and the purpose of art. It’s not perfect, and yet I – even as someone who pretty much never rereads books – can imagine reading this again in the future and gleaning more with hindsight. That makes it worthy of one of my rare 5-star recommendations.
Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?