This latest batch of colour-themed summer reads took me from a depleted post-pandemic landscape to the heart of dysfunctional families in Rhode Island and California.
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide (2021)
Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing this in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry, a middle-aged painter inhabiting his late nephew’s apartment in London, finally twigs that something major is going on. He packs his car and heads to his Devon cottage, leaving its address under the door of the cute neighbour he sometimes flirts with. Hot days stack up and his new habits of rationing food and soap are deeply ingrained by the time the gal from #22, Ash – along with her sister, Jessie, a doctor who stocked up on medicine before fleeing her hospital – turn up. They quickly sink into his routines but have a bigger game plan: getting to Uganda, where their mum once worked and where they know they will be out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues.
It gradually becomes clear that Harry, Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide, somehow immune to a novel disease that spread like wildfire. There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in the way that they ransack the homes of the dead for supplies, and yet there’s lightness to their journey. Jessie has a sharp sense of humour, provoking much banter, and the places they pass through in France and Italy are gorgeous despite the circumstances. It would be a privilege to wander empty tourist destinations were it not for fear of nuclear winter and not finding sufficient food – and petrol to keep “the Lioness” (the replacement car they steal; it becomes their refuge) going. While the vague sexual tension between Harry and Ash persists, all three bonds are intriguing.
In an alternating storyline starting in 2017, Lisa and Paul, two computer scientists based in a lab at the Arctic Circle, are programming an AI, Talos XI. Based on reams of data on history and human nature, Talos is asked to predict what will happen next. But when it comes to questions like the purpose of art and whether humans are worth saving, the conclusions he comes to aren’t the ones his creators were hoping for. These sections are set out as transcripts of dialogues, and provide a change of pace and perspective. Initially, I was less sure about this strand, worrying that it would resort to that well-worn trope of machines gone bad. Luckily, Aristide avoids sci-fi clichés, and presents a believable vision of life after the collapse of civilization.
The novel is full of memorable lines (“This absurd overkill, this baroque wedding cake of an apocalypse: plague and then nuclear meltdowns”) and scenes, from Harry burying a dead cow to the trio acting out a dinner party – just in case it’s their last. There’s an environmentalist message here, but it’s subtly conveyed via a propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde. (Public library)
Ruby by Ann Hood (1998)
Olivia had the perfect life: fulfilling, creative work as a milliner; a place in New York City and a bolthole in Rhode Island; a new husband and plans to try for a baby right away. But then, in a fluke accident, David was hit by a car while jogging near their vacation home less than a year into their marriage. As the novel opens, 37-year-old Olivia is trying to formulate a letter to the college girl who struck and killed her husband. She has returned to Rhode Island to get the house ready to sell but changes her mind when a pregnant 15-year-old, Ruby, wanders in one day.
At first, I worried that the setup would be too neat: Olivia wants a baby but didn’t get a chance to have one with David before he died; Ruby didn’t intend to get pregnant and looks forward to getting back her figure and her life of soft drugs and petty crime. And indeed, Olivia suggests an adoption arrangement early on. But the outworkings of the plot are not straightforward, and the characters, both main and secondary (including Olivia’s magazine writer friend, Winnie; David’s friend, Rex; Olivia’s mother and sister; a local lawyer who becomes a love interest), are charming.
It’s a low-key, small-town affair reminiscent of the work of Anne Tyler, and I appreciated how it sensitively explores grief, its effects on the protagonist’s decision-making, and how daunting it is to start over (“The idea of that, of beginning again from nothing, made Olivia feel tired.”). It was also a neat touch that Olivia is the same age as me, so in some ways I could easily imagine myself into her position.
This was the ninth book I’ve read by Hood, an author little known outside of the USA – everything from grief memoirs to a novel about knitting. Ironically, its main themes of adoption and bereavement were to become hallmarks of her later work: she lost her daughter in 2002 and then adopted a little girl from China. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
[I’ve read another novel titled Ruby – Cynthia Bond’s from 2014.]
Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott (2002)
I’m a devoted reader of Lamott’s autobiographical essays about faith against the odds (see here), but have been wary of trying her fiction, suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Well, it’s true that I prefer her nonfiction on the whole, but this was an enjoyably offbeat novel featuring the kind of frazzled antiheroine who wouldn’t be out of place in Anne Tyler’s work.
Mattie Ryder has left her husband and returned to her Bay Area family home with her young son and daughter. She promptly falls for Daniel, the handyman she hires to exterminate the rats, but he’s married, so she keeps falling into bed with her ex, Nicky, even after he acquires a new wife and baby. Her mother, Isa, is drifting ever further into dementia. A blue rubber shoe that Mattie finds serves as a totem of her late father – and his secret life. She takes a gamble that telling the truth, no matter what the circumstances, will see her right.
As in Ruby, I found the protagonist relatable and the ensemble cast of supporting characters amusing. Lamott crafts some memorable potted descriptions: “She was Jewish, expansive and yeasty and uncontained, as if she had a birthright for outrageousness” and “He seemed so constrained, so neatly trimmed, someone who’d been doing topiary with his soul all his life.” She turns a good phrase, and adopts the same self-deprecating attitude towards Mattie that she has towards herself in her memoirs: “She usually hoped to look more like Myrna Loy than an organ grinder’s monkey when a man finally proclaimed his adoration.”
At a certain point – maybe two-thirds of the way through – my inward reply to a lot of the novel’s threads was “okay, I get it; can we move on?” Yes, the situation with Isa is awful; yes, something’s gotta give with Daniel and his wife; yes, the revelations about her father seem unbearable. But with a four-year time span, it felt like Mattie was stuck in the middle for far too long. It’s also curious that she doesn’t apply her zany faith (a replica of Lamott’s) to questions of sexual morality – though that’s true of more liberal Christian approaches. All in all, I had some trouble valuing this as a novel because of how much I know about Lamott’s life and how closely I saw the storyline replicating her family dynamic. (Secondhand purchase, c. 2006 – I found a signed hardback in a library book sale back in my U.S. hometown for $1.)
Hmm, altogether too much blue in my selections thus far (4 out of 8!). I’ll have to try to come up with some more interesting colours for my upcoming choices.
Next books in progress: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames and God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald.
Read any of these? Interested?
Four July–August releases: Scottish nature writing, the quirky story of a family taxidermy business in Florida, a dual-timeline novel set at an unusual dictionary’s headquarters, and a critical and personal response to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie
This nature writing anthology of essays, poems and visual art drew me because of contributor names like GP Gavin Francis (reviewed: Shapeshifters), Amy Liptrot (the Wainwright Prize-winning memoir The Outrun), singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, and Shetland chronicler Malachy Tallack (reviewed: The Un-Discovered Islands and The Valley at the Centre of the World), not to mention editor Kathleen Jamie. Archaeology and folk music evoke the past, while climate change scenarios inject a sense of a menacing future. Seabirds circle and coastal and island scenery recurs. Entries from Alec Finlay’s “A Place-Aware Dictionary” disguise political points under tongue-in-cheek language, as in a definition of foraging: “Later sometimes referred to as the Brexit Diet.” The (sub)urban could be more evident, and I didn’t need two bouts of red deer sex, but there’s still a nice mix of tones and approaches here.
Six best pieces (out of 24): Chris Powici on wind turbines and red kites at the Braes of Doune; Jacqueline Bain on how reduced mobility allows her to observe wasps closely; Jim Crumley on sea eagle reintroductions and the ancient sky burials that took place at the Tomb of the Eagles; Jen Hadfield on foraging for whelks at the ocean’s edge, in a run-on hybrid narrative; Sally Huband on how persecution of ravens and of women (still not allowed to take part in Up Helly Aa festivities) continues on Shetland; and Liptrot on how wild swimming prepared her for childbirth and helped her to recover a sense of herself separate from her baby. And if I had to pick just one, the Huband – so brave and righteously angry.
“Compromises need to be made. An overlap between the wild and the human has to be negotiated and managed. … So let’s play merry hell with the distinction between what counts as wild and what counts as human, between what’s condemned as a visual obscenity and what’s seen as a marvel of the age. Let’s mess up the boundaries and get a new measure of ourselves as a species.” (Powici)
inspiration to get out walking again: “Don’t wait / thinking you’ve seen it all already … don’t wait thinking you need better boots / or a waterproof that’ll keep out the rain. / It won’t. Don’t wait.” (“Water of Ae” by Em Strang)
My thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
“We couldn’t ever leave roadkill behind. Something inside us always made us stop to pick up dead things.”
After her father’s suicide, Jessa-Lynn Morton takes over the family taxidermy business in central Florida. Despite her excessive drinking and grief over both her father and her best friend and long-time on-and-off girlfriend (also, inconveniently, her brother’s wife) Brynn, who recently took off, she’s just about holding it together. That is, until 1) her mother takes to composing interspecies orgies and S&M scenes in the shop window and 2) her niece and nephew, Lolee and Bastien, start bringing in specimens for taxidermy that they haven’t exactly obtained legally. Gallery owner Lucinda Rex takes an interest in her mother’s ‘art’ and is soon a new romantic interest for Jessa. But the entire family is going to have to face its issues before her professional and love life can be restored.
This debut novel’s title, cover and premise were utterly irresistible to me, and though I loved the humid Florida setting, it was all a bit too much. At 200 pages this could have been a razor-sharp new favorite, but instead there was a lot of sag in its 350+ pages. Alternating chapters based around mounting particular animals give glimpses into the family’s past but mostly have Jessa mooning over Brynn. Her emotional journey starts to feel belabored; it’s as if an editor tried to rein in Arnett’s campy glee at the dysfunctional family’s breakdown and made her add in some amateur psychoanalysis, and for me this diluted the quirky joy.
Skinning and sex scenes are equally explicit here. This never bothered me, but it should go without saying that it is not a book for the squeamish. It’s when sex and taxidermy mix that things get a little icky, as in her mother’s X-rated tableaux and a line like “Often I found myself comparing the limber body of a deer with the long line of [Lucinda’s] legs or the strong cord of her neck.” Believe it or not, this is not the first queer taxidermy novel I’ve read. The other one, English Animals by Laura Kaye, was better. I’d wanted another Swamplandia! but got something closer to Black Light instead.
My thanks to Corsair for the free copy for review.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
Mallory is five years into an internship at Swansby House, the London headquarters of Swansby’s dictionary. The dictionary is known for being unfinished – too many of its lexicographers left for WWI and never returned – and for having made-up words. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, the butt of jokes among his colleagues, started composing mountweazels (fake entries) and inserting them into the dictionary. In the contemporary story line, Mallory’s job is to remove the mountweazels as the dictionary is prepared for digitization. But her attention is distracted by anonymous bomb threats and by lingering shame about her sexuality – Mallory thinks she’s “out enough,” but her girlfriend Pip begs to differ.
Chapters are headed with vocabulary words running from A to Z, and alternate between Mallory’s first-person narration and a third-person account of Winceworth’s misadventures at the turn of the twentieth century. In any book with this kind of structure I seem to prefer the contemporary strand and itch to get back to it, though there is a quite astounding scene in which Winceworth intervenes to help a choking pelican. Events at Swansby House resonate and mirror each other across the dozen decades, with both main characters emerging with a new sense of purpose after an epiphany that life is about more than work. Though silly in places, this has a winning love of words and characters you’ll care about.
A favorite made-up word: “Mammonsomniate: to dream that money might make anything possible.”
Readalikes: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony and Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
My thanks to William Heinemann for the proof copy for review.
Looking Was Not Enough: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex by Irena Yamboliev
When I worked in a university library and read Middlesex during quiet evenings on the circulation desk in 2009, a colleague asked me, “Is that about the London borough?” My reply: “Er, no, it’s about a hermaphrodite.” That’s an off-putting, clinical sort of word, but it does appear in the first paragraph of this family saga with a difference, after the mythological intensity and medical necessity implied by the killer opening line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Cal, born Calliope but now living as a man and working in the Foreign Service, recounts three generations of family history, from Greece to Detroit to Berlin. “Because … their parents were dead and their village destroyed, because no one in Smyrna knew who they were,” brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona became lovers and got married on the boat over to America. They were his grandparents. Add to that his parents’ first-cousin marriage and you see how inbreeding played genetic havoc and made way for Callie/Cal.
I intended to reread Middlesex, which I consider one of my all-time favorite books, but only made it through 60 pages on this occasion. Still, Yamboliev, a Bulgarian-American who teaches at Stanford, reminded me of everything I love about it: the medical theme, the exploration of selfhood, the playful recreation of the past. Drawing parallels with her own family’s move to America, she ponders the disconnection from the home country and the creation of a new life story. “To tell ourselves where we come from—to narrate—is to find a pattern retroactively.” She also looks at literary precursors like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Herculine Barbin’s memoir, and Balzac’s and Barthes’s writings on a castrato. “Does transformation make the self discontinuous?” is one of her central questions, and she likens Cal’s situation to that of trans men who have to train themselves to speak, dress and act in a convincingly masculine way.
This is part of Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series; all its monographs do a wonderful job of blending literary criticism, enthusiastic appreciation, and autobiographical reflection as life dovetails with (re)reading. I’ve previously reviewed the Fiction Advocate books on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post, and the ones on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in this one.
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.