Tag Archives: dystopian

The 1976 Club: Woman on the Edge of Time & The Takeover

It’s my fourth time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after last year’s 1920 Club and 1956 Club and April’s 1936 Club). I start with a novel I actually read for my book club’s short-lived feminist classics subgroup way back in March but didn’t manage to review before now, and then have another I picked up especially for this challenge. Both were from the university library.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world (in a way that would attract fans of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Parable duology), this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. At 37, Connie Ramos has had a tough life marked by deprivation and domestic violence; “it was a crime to be born poor as it was a crime to be born brown.” She finds herself in conversation with Luciente, a plant geneticist who claims to be visiting from the future – coastal Massachusetts in 2137 – and has heard rumors of this prior Age of Greed and Waste. Luciente senses that Connie is a “catcher,” receptive to the wavelength of other times and places.

When drawn into Luciente’s future, Connie thinks of it more as a peasant past because of the animal husbandry and agriculture, but comes to appreciate how technology and gender equality contribute to a peaceful society and environmentally restored landscape. I was intrigued by the dynamic Piercy imagines: everyone is of indeterminate gender (the universal pronouns are “person” and “per” – how about it? Both less confusing and more aesthetically pleasing than they/them!); embryos are cultured in machines and the resulting children raised communally with three honorary named “mother” figures. People choose their own names and change them in response to rites of passage. There’s no government or police. Free love reigns. “Our notions of evil center around power and greed” rather than sex, Connie is told.

With Connie and her fellow inmates facing mind-altering surgery in the ‘real’ world, Luciente’s community becomes a blessed escape. But on one of her time travels, she ends up in a dystopian future New York City instead. From 126 floors up, all that’s visible through the smoggy air is other towers. Everyone is genetically modified and everything is owned by corporations. Which scenario represents the authentic evolution of human society?

The way Piercy intersperses these visions with life at the mental hospital, and closes with excerpts from Connie’s patient notes, forces you to question whether they might all be hallucinations. We didn’t come to any firm conclusion during our Zoom discussion. The others found Connie’s life unremittingly bleak, but I love me a good mental hospital narrative. While I wearied a bit of the anthropological detail as the novel went on, I thought it an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment (small-scale food production, foraging, renewable energy and reusing/recycling are givens in her utopia, and she questions the nonsensical reliance on cars. Why didn’t we listen to the prophets of the 1970s when we maybe had a chance to turn things around?!).

My rating:

 

The Takeover by Muriel Spark

Had I read this in manuscript with no author name attached, I might have declared it to have been written by Iris Murdoch for the clutch of amoral characters, the love triangles, the peculiar religious society, the slight meanness of the attitude, and the detachment of the prose. Maggie Radcliffe is a rich American who owns three houses in the vicinity of Rome, one of which she rents out to Hubert Mallindaine, an effete homosexual who alleges that he is descended from the goddess Diana and founds a cult in her honour. He holds to this belief as fiercely as he defends his right to remain at Nemi even when Maggie decides she wants him out and employs lawyers to start eviction proceedings. There are odd priests, adulterous family members, scheming secretaries, and art and jewellery thieves, too. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, but I liked this, my fourth novel by Spark, better than the rest. Italian bureaucracy makes for an amusing backdrop to what is almost a financial farce with an ensemble cast.

My rating:

 

Another 1976 release I’ve reviewed this year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.

Review and Q&A: Those Fantastic Lives by Bradley Sides

Bradley Sides and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine in 2014–15 and I’ve been following his career ever since. I was delighted to get early access to his debut short story collection, Those Fantastic Lives (out today from Blacklight Press), which was an ideal transition for me from September’s short story focus to October’s R.I.P. challenge for how it blends the genres of dystopia, horror, and magic realism with literary writing.

Many of the protagonists in these 17 stories are orphans or children who have lost one parent. Grief uproots them, leaves them questing; combine their loneliness with dashes of the supernatural and you have perfect situations for strange and wonderful things to happen. So in the title story we have Sam, who at eight longs to follow in his psychic grandmother’s footsteps. In the achingly beautiful “Dolls for the End of the World,” young Patrick’s empathy somehow makes the apocalypse more bearable. In “The Hunt,” 10-year-old Zoey is obsessed with finding a sasquatch, while “In the Hollow” Walt trusts wolf-like creatures to lead him to his dead mother.

“Commencement,” in a first-person plural voice, is the creepiest of the lot, documenting preparations for graduation at a special academy. To be named the class valedictorian is an enduring yet dubious honor… But there are flashes of humor in the book as well. For instance, the lighthearted werewolf story “A Complicated Correspondence” is told via a series of increasingly convoluted e-mails. These two and “Back in Crowville,” in which scarecrows are used to scare off ghosts, too, struck me as perfect Halloween reading. I’d particularly recommend the book to readers of Kelly Link and Lydia Millet.

Brad and I had a chat over e-mail about his inspiration, themes and publication process.

 

Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?

Almost all of the stories I write come to me initially as a vision. I don’t mean in a dream or anything that dramatic, but I might be walking and see a stream, and suddenly that stream is placed in another world, and the stakes are much, much higher. Once I see my characters or my setting or my situation, I have to write a story that leads up to the moment I’m seeing. Writing and creating is, for me, a very internalized process.

Titles are so hard for me. I wish this weren’t the case, but I never write with titles in mind. Sometimes I’ll have the story ready, and I might have to wait weeks before I come to the right title. In regards to writing, I think I’m the worst at titling.

 

I think my favorite line in the book might be “Just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it’s gone.” That’s from “The Comet Seekers,” about a pair of brothers in search of their father. A number of the stories feature children who have lost a guardian. How does bereavement alter the course of these coming-of-age narratives?

I’m so interested in loss in general. In life, we lose things. As kids. As adults. It doesn’t stop. I grew up on a farm, and animals died constantly. Chickens were slaughtered by foxes. Ducks were killed on their nests by turtles. Cows were sold and slaughtered. Pets died. Loss was everywhere. I’ve always thought about it. I guess, in many ways, loss haunts me.

I feel like bereavement and orphanhood create tension in many of my stories, but they also serve to add stakes to my characters’ lives. It’s tough to keep losing. Sometimes, you’ll do anything to keep from experiencing that—or to try to keep from experiencing that, at least. There’s power there.

 

I imagine that, like sequencing an album, choosing the order of the stories was a pleasurable challenge. How did you decide on the structure of the book – the opening story, the closing story; the themes running into or contrasting with each other; transitions; and so on?

It was a fun process to start putting all of my work together. I mean, it was also a little stressful once I got near the end and was getting ready to send Those Fantastic Lives out, but it was still fun. I have written a lot of stories, but for my collection, I wanted to only include the stories I love the most. I cut and cut based on just pure writerly love first—and gut instinct, I suppose. Once I had it narrowed, I started looking closely at themes. I removed a handful that felt like they didn’t belong. I really like slim collections (and slim books in general), so I wanted something relatively short—something less than 200 pages. The strangest thing I did was that I read the collection aloud. SEVERAL times, too. If a story didn’t fit the sound, I cut it. I really wanted to put out a cohesive collection, and I think (hope?) I’ve done that with these seventeen stories.

 

I loved how elements recurred in later tales – for instance, in both “Losing Light” and “The Mooneaters” characters consume sources of light and glow from the inside, and “What They Left Behind” connects back to “The Mooneaters” in that a character starts to sprout feathers. How do you account for these pervasive images?

This is probably a terrible response to such a great question, but it’s the truth: I look at the sky a lot. As in, probably way beyond what is normal. When I walk my dog, I look up at the morning sky and think about the clouds and the rising sun. When my wife and I are out on the porch in the evenings, I look up and think about the approaching stars. The coming moon. Whether early or late, the birds are always around, flying to wherever it is they go. I am so amazed by and curious of the sky. It’s such a beautiful, mysterious place that hovers above us, and it’s kind of the perfect space for me to root a lot of the fantastical elements of my stories.

 

In my favorite story, “The Galactic Healers,” Lian makes contact with aliens who offer a therapeutic balm. His suspicious father takes the medicine by force – a plan that quickly backfires. To what extent might this one be read as a parable of colonial exploitation and toxic masculinity?

I’m so glad you liked “The Galactic Healers,” Rebecca. It is one of my favorites, too. I’m naturally drawn, just as a human and not even necessarily speaking as a writer, to the topics you mention. I think about otherness. What it means to be outside or different. In that same way, I think about tender versus toxic behavior. I think the reading you have of the story is definitely a good one. And it probably captures where I was, in my head, at that time.

 

I sensed shades of Karen Russell and George Saunders. Who are some of your favorite writers, and who would you cite as inspirations for the collection?

I love Karen Russell and George Saunders both. I’m honored that my work reminds you of their writing. I think they are both influences on my fiction. I’m also inspired by Ray Bradbury a lot. I’m a very visual creator, so television writers also serve as huge inspirations for me. Mike Flanagan’s work (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor) haunts me, and I love it.

Bradley Sides. Photo by Abraham Rowe.

 

Versions of 12 of the stories previously appeared in various publications. What has your experience been of getting your work into literary magazines?

Getting published in literary magazines is an exhausting process. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary one and one that gives me a lot of joy in the long run, but it’s also tough. I write weird stuff. Not every magazine wants a story about glowing monsters or a tiny kid whose home planet was invaded by giants and now lives on an ice cube. Finding the right magazine takes time, and even when I think I’ve found the right place, I’m sometimes wrong. I submit, hope for the best, and keep submitting. Usually, most of my stories wind up finding homes in the first five or so magazines I submit them to, but that’s not always the case. With “What They Left Behind,” for example, I bet I sent that story to twenty or thirty magazines before I found the perfect match at Crow & Cross Keys. Although it took some time to land at its home, it found its PERFECT home.

 

These stories were seven years in the making. What was your road to publication like, and how did you land at Blacklight Press?

Like many yet-to-publish-a-book writers, I was constantly searching for publication information as I was reaching the end of my writing cycle for Those Fantastic Lives, and I kept encountering these articles about how long and tough the publication process can be. I was prepared for it to take years before I found a press willing to take on my collection.

Once it was ready, I sent Those Fantastic Lives out to a handful of publishers—all of which I’d found out about with basic web searches. A couple were interested, but the offer wasn’t what I was looking for. A couple showed interest, but ultimately passed. Blacklight landed, and I knew it was what I was looking for very early on.

The process of when I began to when I found my publisher was probably less than six months.

The whole team at Blacklight has been fantastic, too. It’s really been a dream experience. I feel very grateful.

 

In your day job, you teach English and creative writing to high schoolers. What are some of the most important lessons you hope your students will take away from your classes, and what have you learned from them?

I hope, more than anything, that my students learn that their words—and their stories—matter. If they truly put themselves into their work, it is art, and it is important. I also hope they leave my classroom knowing how important respect is. To other writers. To themselves. To their eventual readers. To people in general. Respect is key.

I’ve learned so much from my creative writing students. They inspire me. They motivate me. Seeing their excitement when they write something they are proud of reminds me why I write in the first place. They are also wonderfully eager readers. I love discussing stories with them and learning how they perceive texts. Creative writing classes are treasured places.

 

What are you working on next?

Earlier this year, I began working on my next set of stories. I’m a slow writer. Maybe a very slow writer. With it being so early in the process, it’s hard to say exactly what the next collection will look like, but I do think I’ll largely stay focused on the same kinds of themes. Loss, loneliness, and transformation are naturally interesting to me. There’ll be more experimentation with form. A story in the shape of a manual. A gameplay story. A transcript. A flash in questions. There’ll be plenty of magical weirdness, too, with, probably, pond monsters, apocalypses, a shark boy, kidnapping ghosts, and who knows what else. I just hope it won’t take me so long to write this second book!

Short Stories in September, Part III: Butler, Costello, MacLaverty, Washington

Today I have a third set of terrific and varied short story collections. Between this, my Part I and Part II posts, and a bonus review I have coming up on Friday, I’ve gotten through 12 volumes of stories this month. This feels like a great showing for me because I don’t naturally gravitate to short stories and have to force myself to make a special effort to read them every September; otherwise, they tend to languish unread on my shelves and TBR.

From science fiction and horror tales set in alternate worlds to gritty slices of real life in Texas via two sets of quiet Irish relationship studies, this quartet of books showcases a range of tones and genres but fairly straightforward story structures and points of view. This was such a strong batch, I had to wonder why I never call myself a short story fan. All:

 

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2005)

My first R.I.P. selection and one I can heartily recommend – even if you’re normally wary of dystopias, horror and science fiction. Butler makes these genres accessible by peopling her plots with relatable protagonists and carefully accounting for their bizarre predicaments without wasting time on extraneous world-building. The way in which she explores very human issues alongside the existence of alien beings reminds me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, another of my rare forays into sci fi.

Along with the original five stories Butler published in 1970s and 1980s magazines and anthologies, this second edition contains two essays on her writing process and two new stories that date to 2003. In “Bloodchild,” a small band of humans live on another planet ruled by the Tlic, which sound like giant spiders or scorpions. Gan learns he is expected to play his part by being a surrogate for T’Gatoi’s eggs, but is haunted by what he’s heard this process involves. In a brief afterword (one is included with each piece here), Butler explains that the story arose from her terror of botflies, which she knew she might encounter in the Peruvian Amazon, and that she has always faced what scares her through her writing.

My other favorite story was “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” about a subclass of people afflicted with Duryea-Gode disease. A cruel side effect of a parent’s cancer treatment, the illness compels sufferers to self-harm and they are often confined to asylums. Lynn and Alan visit his mother in one such institution and see what their future might hold. “Speech Sounds” and “Amnesty” reminded me most of the Parable novels, with the latter’s Noah a leader figure similar to Lauren. After an apocalyptic event, people must adapt and cooperate to survive. I appreciated how the two essays value persistence – more so than talent or inspiration – as the key to success as a writer. This was my fourth book by Butler and I don’t see why I shouldn’t keep going and read her whole oeuvre. (University library)

 

The China Factory by Mary Costello (2012)

Academy Street is a near-perfect novella and I also enjoyed The River Capture, so I wanted to complete the set by reading Costello’s first book. Its dozen understated stories are about Irish men and women the course of whose lives are altered by chance meetings, surprise liaisons, or not-quite-affairs that needle them ever after with the could-have-been. The mood of gentle melancholy would suit a chilly moonlight drive along the coast road to Howth. In the opening title story, a teenage girl rides to her work sponging clay cups with an oddball named Gus. Others can’t get past things like his body odour, but when there’s a crisis at the factory she sees his calm authority save the day. Elsewhere, a gardener rushes his employer to the hospital, a woman attends her ex-husband’s funeral, and a school inspector becomes obsessed with one of the young teachers he observes.

Three favourites: In “And Who Will Pay Charon?” a man learns that, after he rejected Suzanne, she was hideously attacked in London. When she returns to the town as an old woman, he wonders what he might have done differently. “The Astral Plane” concerns a woman who strikes up a long-distance e-mail correspondence with a man from New York who picked up a book she left behind in a library. How will their intellectual affair translate into the corporeal world? The final story, “The Sewing Room,” reminded me most of Academy Street and could be a novel all of its own, as a schoolteacher and amateur fashion designer prepares for her retirement party and remembers the child she gave up for adoption. (Secondhand, gifted)

 

Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (2021)

I knew from The Great Profundo that I liked MacLaverty’s stories, and I also enjoyed his latest novel, Midwinter Break, so I was delighted to hear news of a new collection. A number of the longer stories are set at turning points in twentieth-century history. In 1940, a mother is desperate to hear word of her soldier son; in 1971 Belfast, officers search a woman’s house. Two of the historical stories appealed to me for their medical elements: “The End of Days,” set in Vienna in 1918, dramatizes Egon Schiele’s fight with Spanish flu, while “Blackthorns” gives a lovely picture of how early antibiotics promoted miraculous recovery. In the title story, a cat is all a writer has left to remind him of his late wife. “Wandering” has a woman out looking for her dementia-addled mother. “The Dust Gatherer” muses on the fate of an old piano. Elderly parents and music recur, establishing filaments of thematic connection.

Three favourites: In “Glasshouses,” a man temporarily misplaces his grandchildren in the botanical gardens; “The Fairly Good Samaritan” is the fable of a jolly drunk who calls an ambulance for his poorly neighbour – but not before polishing off her brandy; and in the gorgeous “Sounds and Sweet Airs” a young woman’s harp music enthrals the passengers on a ferry.

With thanks to Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.

 

Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington (2019)

The musical equivalent of Lot might be a mixtape played on a boombox or blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Most of this Dylan Thomas Prize-winning linked collection follows Nic, a mixed-race Black/Latino boy who works in the family restaurant. As his family situation realigns – his father leaves, his older brother Javi enlists, his sister Jan has a baby – he’s trying to come to terms with his homosexuality and wondering if this gentrifying city suits him anymore. But he knows he’ll take himself wherever he goes, and as the book closes with “Elgin” (the most similar in mood and setup to Washington’s debut novel, Memorial) he’s thinking of taking a chance on love.

Drug dealers, careworn immigrants and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these stories. Eleven of 13 stories are in the first person. Where the narration isn’t Nic’s, it’s usually the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys. As far as I can tell, most of the story titles refer to Houston sites: particular addresses or neighbourhoods, or more vague locations. Like in Memorial, there are no speech marks. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh: “He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around”; “He’d been staying there since the Great Thanksgiving Rupture, back when his brother’d found the dick pic in his pillowcase.” With the melting pot of cultures, the restaurant setting, and the sharp humour, this reminded me of Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart.

Three favourites: In “Shepherd,” the narrator emulates a glamorous cousin from Jamaica; “Bayou” is completely different from the rest, telling the urban legend of a “chupacubra” (a mythical creature like a coyote); “Waugh,” the longest story and one of just two told in the third person, is about a brothel’s worth of male sex workers and their pimp. Its final page is devastating. Despite their bravado, Washington’s characters are as vulnerable as Brandon Taylor’s. I think of these two young gay African American writers as being similar at root even though their style and approach are so very different. (New purchase)

 

A side note: I’m wondering how an author chooses primarily first person or third person POVs for short stories. MacLaverty and Taylor write exclusively in an omniscient third person; Washington and Eley Williams almost always plump for the first person. (Here, Butler was about half and half and Costello only used first person in three stories.) Is the third person seen as more impartial and commanding – a more elevated form of fiction? Is first person more immediate, informal and natural, but also perhaps too easy? I wouldn’t say I prefer one or the other (not in my novels, either); it all depends on the execution. Notably, none of this year’s stories were in the second person or employed experimental structures.

 


Two more collections I’m reading are spilling across into October for R.I.P., but will I keep up the short story habit after that? I still have a shelf full of unread story collections, and I have my eye on My Monticello, which I got from NetGalley…

Six Degrees of Separation: Second Place to Woman on the Edge of Time

The last Six Degrees of Separation post I did was back in April; I’ve fallen out of the habit since then. But this month an idea seized me and I’m back! This time we begin with Second Place by Rachel Cusk, which is on the Booker Prize longlist. (See Kate’s opening post.)

When I saw Cusk speak at the online Hay Festival, I learned that Second Place (my review) was loosely inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos, about the time when D.H. Lawrence came to visit her in New Mexico. Thoughts of Lawrence in Taos inevitably take me back to my first (and only) academic conference in 2005, hosted by the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America in Santa Fe, with a fieldtrip out to his Taos ranch.

 

#1 One of the books I read ‘in preparation’ for attending that conference was Small World by David Lodge, a comedic novel about professors on the international conference circuit. I’ve included it as one of the Landmark Books of My Life.

 

#2 Flights and “small world” connections also fill the linked short story collection Turbulence by David Szalay.

 

#3 If you can bear to remember the turbulence of recent history, UnPresidented by Jon Sopel is a breezy diary of the 2020 U.S. election. We were lucky enough to have the author, a BBC presenter and brother of one of our members, join our book club discussion on Zoom.

 

#4 That punning title reminded me of A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson, his first and probably best work of popular science – all of his books since have been very similar, but that’s no problem because his enthusiasm for insect life is infectious and he writes with the wit and charm of Gerald Durrell.

 

#5 Goulson’s latest book, which I’ve recently reviewed for Shelf Awareness, is called Silent Earth, about the grave threats that insects face (pesticides, invasive species, climate change and much more). It’s the second book I’ve read in recent years (the first was Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) that is explicitly based on or inspired by Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Like Carson’s book, these seek to effect real societal change.

#6 Carson, Goulson and Jones all conjure up dystopian scenarios of unimaginable natural loss to spur readers into action. A feminist classic my book club read earlier in the year, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. Will society evolve into a utopian vision of subsistence living and absolute gender equality, or move towards further isolation and urban barrenness? It’s an unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but grounded in the real world. I still haven’t managed to review it, but next month’s 1976 Club may be just the excuse I need. Do give it a try!

Cycling round from one feminist novel to another, I’ve also featured a couple of personal favourites, some recent works, and a classic of nature writing.

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s R.I.P.-appropriate starting point is the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

Review Book Catch-Up: Motherhood, Nature Essays, Pandemic, Poetry

July slipped away without me managing to review any current-month releases, as I am wont to do, so to those three I’m adding in a couple of other belated review books to make up today’s roundup. I have: a memoir-cum-sociological study of motherhood, poems of Afghan women’s experiences, a graphic novel about a fictional worst-case pandemic, seasonal nature essays from voices not often heard, and poetry about homosexual encounters.

 

(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman by Pragya Agarwal

“Mothering would be my biggest gesture of defiance.”

Growing up in India, Agarwal, now a behavioural and data scientist, wished she could be a boy for her father’s sake. Being the third daughter was no place of honour in society’s eyes, but her parents ensured that she got a good education and expected her to achieve great things. Still, when she got her first period, it felt like being forced onto a fertility track she didn’t want. There was a dearth of helpful sex education, and Hinduism has prohibitions that appear to diminish women, e.g. menstruating females aren’t permitted to enter a temple.

Married and unexpectedly pregnant in 1996, Agarwal determined to raise her daughter differently. Her mother-in-law was deeply disappointed that the baby was a girl, which only increased her stubborn pride: “Giving birth to my daughter felt like first love, my only love. Not planned but wanted all along. … Me and her against the world.” No element of becoming a mother or of her later life lived up to her expectations, but each apparent failure gave a chance to explore the spectrum of women’s experiences: C-section birth, abortion, divorce, emigration, infertility treatment, and finally having further children via a surrogate.

While I enjoyed the surprising sweep of Agarwal’s life story, this is no straightforward memoir. It aims to be an exhaustive survey of women’s life choices and the cultural forces that guide or constrain them. The book is dense with history and statistics, veers between topics, and needed a better edit for vernacular English and smoothing out academic jargon. I also found that I wasn’t interested enough in the specifics of women’s lives in India.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Forty Names by Parwana Fayyaz

“History has ungraciously failed the women of my family”

Have a look at this debut poet’s journey: Fayyaz was born in Kabul in 1990, grew up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, studied in Bangladesh and at Stanford, and is now, having completed her PhD, a research fellow at Cambridge. Many of her poems tell family stories that have taken on the air of legend due to the translated nicknames: “Patience Flower,” her grandmother, was seduced by the Khan and bore him two children; “Quietude,” her aunt, was a refugee in Iran. Her cousin, “Perfect Woman,” was due to be sent away from the family for infertility but gained revenge and independence in her own way.

Fayyaz is bold to speak out about the injustices women can suffer in Afghan culture. Domestic violence is rife; miscarriage is considered a disgrace. In “Roqeeya,” she remembers that her mother, even when busy managing a household, always took time for herself and encouraged Parwana, her eldest, to pursue an education and earn her own income. However, the poet also honours the wisdom and skills that her illiterate mother exhibited, as in the first three poems about the care she took over making dresses and dolls for her three daughters.

As in Agarwal’s book, there is a lot here about ideals of femininity and the different routes that women take – whether more or less conventional. “Reading Nadia with Eavan” was a favourite for how it brought together different aspects of Fayyaz’s experience. Nadia Anjuman, an Afghan poet, was killed by her husband in 2005; many years later, Fayyaz found herself studying Anjuman’s work at Cambridge with the late Eavan Boland. Important as its themes are, I thought the book slightly repetitive and unsubtle, and noted few lines or turns of phrase – always a must for me when assessing a poetry collection.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

Resistance by Val McDermid; illus. Kathryn Briggs

The second 2021 release I read in quick succession in which all but a small percentage of the human race (here, 2 million people) perishes in a pandemic – the other was Under the Blue. Like Aristide’s novel, this story had its origins in 2017 (in this case, on BBC Radio 4’s “Dangerous Visions”) but has, of course, taken on newfound significance in the time of Covid-19. McDermid imagines the sickness taking hold during a fictional version of Glastonbury: Solstice Festival in Northumberland. All the first patients, including a handful of rockstars, ate from Sam’s sausage sandwich van, so initially it looks like food poisoning. But vomiting and diarrhoea give way to a nasty rash, listlessness and, in many cases, death.

Zoe Beck, a Black freelance journalist who conducted interviews at Solstice, is friends with Sam and starts investigating the mutated swine disease, caused by an Erysipelas bacterium and thus nicknamed “the Sips.” She talks to the festival doctor and to a female Muslim researcher from the Life Sciences Centre in Newcastle, but her search for answers takes a backseat to survival when her husband and sons fall ill.

The drawing style and image quality – some panes are blurry, as if badly photocopied – let an otherwise reasonably gripping story down; the best spreads are collages or borrow a frame/backdrop (e.g. a medieval manuscript, NHS forms, or a 1910s title page).

SPOILER

{The ending, which has an immune remnant founding a new community, is VERY Parable of the Sower.}

With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.

 

Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, ed. Anita Roy and Pippa Marland

I hadn’t heard about this upcoming nature anthology when a surprise copy dropped through my letterbox. I’m delighted the publisher thought of me, as this ended up being just my sort of book: 12 autobiographical essays infused with musings on landscapes in Britain and elsewhere; structured by the seasons to create a gentle progression through the year, starting with the spring. Best of all, the contributors are mostly female, BIPOC (and Romany), working class and/or queer – all told, the sort of voices that are heard far too infrequently in UK nature writing. In momentous rites of passage, as in routine days, nature plays a big role.

A few of my favourite pieces were by Kaliane Bradley, about her Cambodian heritage (the Wishing Dance associated with cherry blossom, her ancestors lost to genocide, the Buddhist belief that people can be reincarnated in other species); Testament, a rapper based in Leeds, about capturing moments through photography and poetry and about the seasons feeling awry both now and in March 2008, when snow was swirling outside the bus window as he received word of his uni friend’s untimely death; and Tishani Doshi, comparing childhood summers of freedom in Wales with growing up in India and 2020’s Covid restrictions.

Most of the authors hold two places in mind at the same time: for Michael Malay, it’s Indonesia, where he grew up, and the Severn estuary, where he now lives and ponders eels’ journeys; for Zakiya McKenzie, it’s Jamaica and England; for editor Anita Roy, it’s Delhi versus the Somerset field her friend let her wander during lockdown. Trees lend an awareness of time and animals a sense of movement and individuality. Alys Fowler thinks of how the wood she secretly coppices and lays on park paths to combat the mud will long outlive her, disintegrating until it forms the very soil under future generations’ feet.

A favourite passage (from Bradley): “When nature is the cuddly bunny and the friendly old hill, it becomes too easy to dismiss it as a faithful retainer who will never retire. But nature is the panic at the end of a talon, and it’s the tree with a heart of fire where lightning has struck. It is not our friend, and we do not want to make it our enemy.”

Also featured: Bernardine Evaristo (foreword), Raine Geoghegan, Jay Griffiths, Amanda Thomson, and Luke Turner. 

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.

 

Records of an Incitement to Silence by Gregory Woods

Woods is an emeritus professor at Nottingham Trent University, where he was appointed the UK’s first professor of Gay & Lesbian Studies in 1998. Much of his sixth poetry collection is composed of unrhymed sonnets in two stanzas (eight lines, then six). The narrator is often a randy flâneur, wandering a city for homosexual encounters. One assumes this is Woods, except where the voice is identified otherwise, as in “[Walt] Whitman at Timber Creek” (“He gives me leave to roam / my idle way across / his prairies, peaks and canyons, my own America”) and “No Title Yet,” a long, ribald verse about a visitor to a stately home.

Other times the perspective is omniscient, painting a character study, like “Company” (“When he goes home to bed / he dare not go alone. … This need / of company defeats him.”), or of Frank O’Hara in “Up” (“‘What’s up?’ Frank answers with / his most unseemly grin, / ‘The sun, the Dow, my dick,’ / and saunters back to bed.”). Formalists are sure to enjoy Woods’ use of form, rhyme and meter. I enjoyed some of the book’s cheeky moments but had trouble connecting with its overall tone and content. That meant that it felt endless. I also found the end rhymes, when they did appear, over-the-top and silly (Demeter/teeter, etc.).

Two favourite poems: “An Immigrant” (“He turned away / to strip. His anecdotes / were innocent and his / erection smelled of soap.”) and “A Knot,” written for friends’ wedding in 2014 (“make this wedding supper all the sweeter / With choirs of LGBT cherubim”).

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

20 Books of Summer, #6–8: Aristide, Hood, Lamott

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?

The Best Books from the First Half of 2021

Hard to believe we’ve already crossed the midpoint of the year. My top 20 releases of 2021 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (fiction is dominating this year!), are below. I link to those I’ve already reviewed in full here or on Goodreads:

 

Fiction

Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.

 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…

 

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.

 

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.

 

In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.

 

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

 

 

Nonfiction

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

 

The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.

 

Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.

 

A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for TLS.)

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: Lamott’s best new essays in nearly a decade. The central theme is how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst. One key thing that has changed for her is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. In thinking of marriage, she writes about friendship, constancy, and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time.

 

A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creative writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Coming out on July 13th from the University of Michigan Press. My first review for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.

 

 

Poetry

Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Coming out on August 3rd from Graywolf Press. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, 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. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

Recent Online Literary Events with George Saunders and Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been taking advantage of various free and inexpensive literary events – a bonus of our temporarily virtual-only world. I have five of them stored up to write about, but to keep this post from getting absurdly long I’ll focus on two for now and feature the rest another time.

George Saunders in Conversation with Max Porter

(5×15 event)

Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a written version of the graduate-level masterclass in the Russian short story that he offers at Syracuse University, where he has taught in the Creative Writing Program since 1997. His aim here was to “elevate the short story form,” he said. While the book reprints and discusses just seven stories (three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev), in the class he and his students tackle more like 40. He wants people to read a story, react to the story, and trust that reaction – even if it’s annoyance. “Work with it,” he suggested. “I am bringing you an object to consider” on the route to becoming the author you are meant to be – such is how he described his offer to his students, who have already overcome 1 in 100 odds to be on the elite Syracuse program but might still need to have their academic egos tweaked.

The book is, thus, not just a set of essays on the Russian masters but also a guide to how to write well. It was clear there was mutual admiration between Saunders and Max Porter, who interviewed him. They discussed the revision process as an accumulation of micro-decisions that make the work better. For instance, Saunders compared two Tolstoy stories, “The Snowstorm” and “Master and Man” (written 20 years later), and noted that, though they are thematically similar, the later one is more organized.

Saunders spoke about writing as a dual process of intuition and iteration; a bunch of different “yous” have acted on a text by the time it’s done. Early on in his career, he thought that he had to choose which writer he wanted to be (e.g., Hemingway or Kerouac), but as he aged he realized that the mind is never fixed. He went surprisingly deep into Buddhism at this point, likening writing to meditation – both are practices pursued with intensity. To his younger self, he would say to keep going: improving is simply a matter of time (i.e., that 10,000 hours figure that’s bandied about as necessary for developing expertise).

The only drawback to this event was that Saunders was speaking from his snow-encased upstate New York basement and had a horrible Internet connection; often his voice was faint and delayed, while his image stayed static. We and Porter could only stare gormlessly and wait for his face to move to match his words! I think the book would be too niche for me – I’ve hardly read anything by the Russians, and since I don’t write fiction I’m not in need of a guide to those kinds of writing decisions – but it was nice to ‘meet’ Saunders ‘in person’.

An Evening with Kazuo Ishiguro

(Faber Members / Guardian Live event)

Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was published by Faber yesterday. This conversation with Alex Clark also functioned as its launch event. It’s one of my most anticipated books of the year, so I pre-ordered a signed copy along with my ticket and look forward to it arriving soon. Klara is an Artificial Intelligence “friend” purchased to combat teenage loneliness. A childlike figure, she is cheerful and treats the sun like a god. Ishiguro said that the book developed from a story he wrote for children aged five to six, about a little girl who takes a doll home – except his daughter, author Naomi Ishiguro, told him no way was it suitable for young children, being far too dark. He likes “displaced or alien narrators, fish out of water,” he said, because the limited perspective allows him to focus on oddness.

In addition to Clark’s questions, a few pre-recorded questions from literary celebs (Daisy Johnson, Bernardine Evaristo, and David Mitchell) encouraged Ishiguro to create a tripartite schema for his novels, reflect on his writing about Japan, and look back at the devices he has used. Asked by Johnson about the connections between his novels, he admitted that his first three novels all retread the same ground: a man who has made a mess of his life or career picks over the past. Then his mid period is set in dreamscapes, while his most recent three novels are dystopian fantasies (though he does not see Klara as set in a dystopian world).

In response to Evaristo’s question about whether he felt an obligation to write about Japan, he said that with his early work he was conscious of needing to represent a group of people who even then (due to World War II) were viewed with suspicion or antipathy. He left Japan at age five so the country didn’t seem entirely real to him. What he knew was based on very early memories, what his mother told him, comic books sent by his grandparents, etc. As he stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, writing about Japan in his twenties therefore felt like “an act of preservation.” Still, he wants his characters and situations to be universal.

Replying to Mitchell’s three questions (cheeky!), he explained that his first ambition was to be a singer/songwriter, and he wrote 100+ songs. Songwriting taught him minimalism. “You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say,” he noted. He hopes to create spaces, or rather vacuums that suck in the reader’s attention. Unlike Mitchell, he always knows the ending of a book before he begins, and his decisions are all about wanting to lodge in the reader’s brain. Thus, memorable endings are a priority for him, whereas they might not be for other writers. I was struck by his characterization of his own life: when he looks back, he doesn’t see a clear path that arose from his choices; instead, he sees a “weird, incoherent mess.” For this reason, he’s turned against the reflective device of his first three books. If he can come up with a theme, he’s hankering to write a book about hitchhikers in the north of England.

Towards the end of the (overlong) discussion, he mentioned that he has been questioning the novelist’s role due to the events of the past year: wondering about the meaning of fiction when so many have died and so many believe fake news. It was a melancholy but realistic point to end on. While I’m not an Ishiguro completist (The Unconsoled doesn’t appeal to me at all and I’m not sure I can be bothered with When We Were Orphans, but I will try The Buried Giant; I’ve read the rest), the event whetted my appetite to read his new book. (See also this Goodreads interview. I loved the anecdotes about learning he’d won the Nobel!)

Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.

Have you attended any online literary events recently?

Margaret Atwood Reading Month: Wilderness Tips and CWWA Symposium

For this third annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian bloggers extraordinaires Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink, I picked up Wilderness Tips, a short story collection I’m not sure I’d even heard of before I liberated this battered paperback from the Hay-on-Wye Airbnb where we stayed in September (shhhhhh!).

I also listened in to one of the papers given at the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association’s mini online symposium held to mark her 81st birthday yesterday.

 

Wilderness Tips (1991)

If pressed to give a one-line summary, I would say the overall theme of this collection is the power that women have (or do not have) in relationships – this is often a question of sex, but not always. Much of the collection falls neatly into pairs: “True Trash” and “Death by Landscape” are about summer camp and the effects that experiences had there still have decades later; “The Bog Man” and “The Age of Lead” both use the discovery of a preserved corpse (one a bog body, the other a member of the Franklin Expedition) as a metaphor for a frozen relationship; and “Hairball” and “Weight” are about a mistress’s power plays. I actually made myself a key on the table of contents page, assigning A, B, and C to those topics. The title story I labeled [A/C] because it’s set at a family’s lake house but the foreign spouse of one of the sisters has history with or designs on all three.

“Uncles,” a standout, didn’t fit into my framework. Susanna’s three uncles played a major role in her life, so when she got a job with a Toronto newspaper she welcomed her colleague Percy’s avuncular attentions. To her surprise, though, his tell-all autobiography reveals he wasn’t so happy about his protégée’s success after all. Two overall favorites were “Hairball,” about a mistress’s superbly executed act of revenge, and the final story, “Hack Wednesday,” in which Marcia takes stock of her life as she prepares for her children coming home for Christmas. Swap the Berlin Wall and Noriega for, I don’t know, Syria and Trump or suchlike, and it would be absolutely current, what with her partner Eric’s eco-warrior escapades (and hypocrisy) and her wish to situate herself in the context of history but also transcend it. I marked out the most passages in this one, and so many made me laugh:

Time is going faster and faster; the days of the week whisk by like panties. The panties she’s thinking about are the kind she had when was a little girl, in pastels, with ‘Monday,’ ‘Tuesday,’ ‘Wednesday’ embroidered on them. Ever since then the days of the week have had colours for her: Monday is blue, Tuesday is cream, Wednesday is lilac. You counted your way through each week by panty, fresh on each day, then dirtied and thrown into the bin. Marcia’s mother used to tell her that she should always wear clean panties in case a bus ran over her, because other people might see them as her corpse was being toted off to the morgue. It wasn’t Marcia’s potential death that loomed uppermost in her mind, it was the state of her panties.

“One of these days I’m going to kill that beast,” says Eric. … “You poor baby!” says Marcia, scooping up the cat, which is overweight. It’s on a diet, but mooches in secret from the neighbours. Marcia sympathizes. “I just let the damn thing out. In, out, in, out. It can’t make up its mind,” says Eric. “It’s confused,” says Marcia.

Marcia will get a little drunk on the eggnog, and later, after the dishes are done, she will cry silently to herself, shut into the bathroom and hugging in her festive arms the grumbling cat, which she will have dragged out from under a bed for this purpose. She will cry because the children are no longer children, or because she herself is not a child any more, or because there are children who have never been children, or because she can’t have a child any more, ever gone. Her body has gone past too quickly for her.

My rating:

 

CWWA Symposium

To open the afternoon program, Dr. Fiona Tolan of Liverpool John Moores University spoke on “21st-century Gileads: Feminist Dystopian Fiction after Atwood.” She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale casts a long shadow; it’s entered into our cultural lexicon and isn’t going anywhere. She showed covers of three fairly recent books that take up the Handmaid’s red: The Power, Vox, and Red Clocks. However, the two novels she chose to focus on do not have comparable covers: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (my review) and The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. I was unfamiliar with the premise of the Wood. Ten young women who have been involved in public sex scandals (e.g. with politicians) are kidnapped and imprisoned in a compound in the Outback; their heads are shaven and they are forced to undertake hard labor. Although it’s a female-dominated space, the patriarchy is perpetuated. Is sisterhood a possibility here?

Atwood has said, “Some books haunt the reader and some haunt the writer.” Tolan argued that Handmaid’s clearly does both, since Atwood chose to return to Gilead with The Testaments. While Tolan believes Atwood’s overall emphasis has always been on liberty, she notes that the author has been reluctant to be associated with feminism as a movement.


 

I feel like my #MARM participation has been somewhat half-hearted this year – I won’t be getting a Bingo on this chart! – but I always enjoy engaging with Atwood’s writing and thinking. With any luck, I’ll still get to read her new poetry collection, Dearly, for review in 2020, and before long I can start planning what I’ll read for this challenge next November.

Booker Prize 2020: Two More Shortlist Reviews and a Prediction

The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.

 

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.

Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?

The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.

It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.

But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.

My rating:

My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.

 

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).

Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.

Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.

There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.

My rating:

 

I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:

 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.

 

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward

An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.

 


Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.

 

Have you read anything from the Booker shortlist?

Which book do you expect to win?