Tag Archives: dystopian

Books of Summer #18–20: Alan Garner, Peter Matthiessen, Lorrie Moore

I’m sneaking in just in time here, on the very last day of the #20BooksofSummer challenge, with my final three reviews: two novellas, one of them a work of children’s fantasy; and a nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir.

 

 

The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)

I’d heard of Garner, a British writer of classic children’s fantasy novels, but never read any of his work until I picked this up from the free bookshop where I volunteer on a Friday. My husband remembers reading Elidor (also a 1990s TV series) as a boy, but I’m not sure Garner was ever well known in America. Perhaps if I’d discovered this right after the Narnia series when I was a young child, I would have been captivated. I did enjoy the rural Welsh setting, and to start with I was intrigued by the setup: curious about knocking and scratching overhead, Alison and her stepbrother Roger find a complete dinner service up in the attic of this house Alison inherited from her late father. Alison becomes obsessed with tracing out the plates’ owl pattern – which disappears when anyone else, like Nancy the cook, looks at them.

I gather that Garner frequently draws on ancient legend for his plots. Here he takes inspiration from Welsh myths, but the background was so complex and unfamiliar that I could barely follow along. This meant that the climactic ‘spooky’ scenes failed to move me. Instead, I mostly noted the period slang and the class difference between the English children and Gwyn, Nancy’s son, who’s forbidden from speaking Welsh (Nancy says, “I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer”) and secretly takes elocution lessons to sound less ‘common’.

 

Can someone recommend a Garner book I might get on with better?

My rating:

 

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978)

For two months of 1973, from late September to late November, Matthiessen joined zoologist George Schaller on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau to study Himalayan blue sheep. Both also harbored a hope of spotting the elusive snow leopard.

Matthiessen had recently lost his partner, Deborah Love, to cancer, and left their children behind – at residential schools or with family friends – to go on this spirit-healing quest. Though he occasionally feels guilty, especially about the eight-year-old, his thoughts are usually on the practicalities of the mountain trek. They have sherpas to carry their gear, and they stop in at monasteries but also meet ordinary people. More memorable than the human encounters, though, are those with the natural world. Matthiessen watches foxes hunting and griffons soaring overhead; he marvels at alpine birds and flora.

The writing is stunning. No wonder this won a 1979 National Book Award (in the short-lived “Contemporary Thought” category, which has since been replaced by a general nonfiction award). It’s a nature and travel writing classic. However, it took me nearly EIGHTEEN MONTHS to read, in all kinds of fits and starts (see below), because I could rarely read more than part of one daily entry at a time. I struggle with travel narratives in general – perhaps I think it’s unfair to read them faster than the author lived through them? – but there’s also an aphoristic density to the book that requires unhurried, meditative engagement.

The mountains in their monolithic permanence remind the author that he will die. The question of whether he will ever see a snow leopard comes to matter less and less as he uses his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance (“not fatalism but a deep trust in life”) and transience: “In worrying about the future, I despoil the present”; what is this “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day”? I’m fascinated by Buddhism, but anyone who ponders life’s deep questions should get something out of this.

My rating:

 

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore (1994)

Thanks to Cathy for reminding me about this one – I had intended to make it one of my novellas for November, but as I was scrambling around to find a last couple of short books to make up my 20 I thought, “Frog! hey, that fits”* and picked it up.

Oddly, given that Moore is so well known for short stories, I’ve only ever read two of her novels (the other was A Gate at the Stairs). Berie Carr lives just over the border from Quebec in Horsehearts, a fictional town in upstate New York. She and her best friend Sils are teenagers at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and work at Storyland amusement park on the weekends and during the summer. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie starts pocketing money from the cash register to help her out, but it will only be so long until she gets caught and the course of her life changes.

Berie is recounting these pivotal events from adulthood, when she’s traveling in Paris with her husband, Daniel. There are some troubling aspects to their relationship that don’t get fully explored, but that seems to be part of the point: we are always works in progress, and never as psychologically well as we try to appear. I most enjoyed the book’s tone of gentle nostalgia: “Despite all my curatorial impulses and training, my priestly harborings and professional, courtly suit of the past, I never knew what to do with all those years of one’s life: trot around in them forever like old boots – or sever them, let them fly free?”

Moore’s voice here reminds me of Amy Bloom’s and Elizabeth McCracken’s, though I’ve generally enjoyed those writers more.

*There are a few literal references to frogs (as well as the understood slang for French people). The title phrase comes from a drawing Sils makes about their mission to find and mend all the swamp frogs that boys shoot with BB guns. Berie also remarks on the sound of a frog chorus, and notes that two decades later frogs seem to be disappearing from the earth. In both these cases frogs are metaphors for a lost innocence. “She has eaten the frog” is also, in French, a slang term for taking from the cash box.

(I can’t resist mentioning Berie and Sils’ usual snack: raw, peeled potatoes cut into quarters and spread with margarine and salt!)

My rating:

 

A recap of my 20 Books of Summer:

  • I enjoyed my animal theme, which was broad enough to encompass straightforward nature books but also a wide variety of memoirs and fiction. In most cases there was a literal connection between the animal in the title and the book’s subject.
  • I read just nine of my original choices, plus two of the back-ups. The rest were a mixture of: books I brought back from America, review copies, books I’d started last year and set aside for ages, and ones I had lying around and had forgotten were relevant.
  • I accidentally split the total evenly between fiction and nonfiction: 10 of each.
  • I happened to read three novels by Canadian authors. The remainder were your usual British and American suspects.
  • The clear stand-out of the 20 was Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, followed closely by The Snow Leopard (see above) and The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt – all nonfiction!
  • In my second tier of favorites were three novels: Fifteen Dogs, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, and Crow Lake.

I also had three DNFs that I managed to replace in time.

 

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton [a review copy – and one of my Most Anticipated titles]

(I managed the first 36 pages.) Do you have a friend who’s intimidatingly sharp, whose every spoken or written line leaps from wordplay to a joke to an allusion to a pun? That’s how I felt about Hollow Kingdom. It’s so clever it’s exhausting.

I wanted to read this because I’d heard it’s narrated by a crow. S.T. (Shit Turd) is an American Crow who lives with an electrician, Big Jim, in Seattle, along with Dennis the dumb bloodhound. One day Jim’s eyeball pops out and he starts acting crazy and spending all his time in the basement. On reconnaissance flights through the neighborhood, S.T. realizes that all the humans (aka “MoFos” or “Hollows”) are similarly deranged. He runs into a gang of zombies when he goes to the Walgreens pharmacy to loot medications. Some are even starting to eat their pets. (Uh oh.)

We get brief introductions to other animal narrators, including Winnie the Poodle and Genghis Cat. An Internet-like “Aura” allows animals of various species to communicate with each other about the crisis. I struggle with dystopian and zombie stuff, but I think I could make an exception for this. Although I do think it’s overwritten (one adverb and four adjectives in one sentence: “We left slowly to the gentle song of lugubrious paw pads and the viscous beat of crestfallen wings”), I’ll try it again someday.

 

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan: I read the first 164 pages last year before stalling; alas, I could make no more headway this summer. It’s an amusing historical pastiche in the voice of a notorious forger and counterfeiter who’s sentenced to 14 years in Van Diemen’s Land. I could bear only so much of this wordy brilliance, and no more.

 

Tisala by Richard Seward Newton: I guess I read the blurb and thought this was unmissable, but I should have tried to read a sample or some more reviews of it. I got to page 6 and found it so undistinguished and overblown that I couldn’t imagine reading another 560+ pages about a whale.

 

 


For next year, I’m toying with the idea of a food and drink theme. Once again, this would include fiction and nonfiction that is specifically about food but also slightly more cheaty selections that happen to have the word “eats” or “ate” or a potential foodstuff in the title, or have an author whose name brings food to mind. I perused my shelf and found exactly 20 suitable books, so that seems like a sign! (The eagle-eyed among you may note that two of these were on my piles of potential reads for this summer, and two others on last summer’s. When will they ever actually get read?!)

Alternatively, I could just let myself have completely free choice from my shelves. My only non-negotiable criterion is that all 20 books must be ones that I own, to force me to get through more from my shelves (even if that includes review copies).

 

How did you fare with your summer reading?

Too Male! (A Few Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books and TLS)

I tend to wear my feminism lightly; you won’t ever hear me railing about the patriarchy or the male gaze. But there have been five reads so far this year that had me shaking my head and muttering, “too male!” While aspects of these books were interesting, the macho attitude or near-complete dearth of women irked me. Two of them I’ve already written about here: Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden was a previous month’s classic and book club selection, while Chip Cheek’s Cape May was part of my reading in America. The other three I reviewed for Shiny New Books or the Times Literary Supplement; I give excerpts below, with links to visit the full reviews in two cases, plus ideas for a book or two by a woman that should help neutralize the bad taste these might leave.

 

Shiny New Books

 

The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology by Mark Boyle

Boyle lives without electricity in a wooden cabin on a smallholding in County Galway, Ireland. He speaks of technology as an addiction and letting go of it as a detoxification process. For him it was a gradual shift that took place at the same time as he was moving away from modern conveniences. The Way Home is split into seasonal sections in which the author’s past and present intermingle. The writing consciously echoes Henry David Thoreau’s. Without even considering the privilege that got Boyle to the point where he could undertake this experiment, though, there are a couple of problems with this particular back-to-nature model. One is that it is a very male enterprise. Another is that Boyle doesn’t really have the literary chops to add much to the canon. Few of us could do what he has done, whether because of medical challenges, a lack of hands-on skills or family commitments. Still, the book is worth engaging with. It forces you to question your reliance on technology and ask whether making life easier is really a valuable goal.

  • The Remedy: Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies, which I’m currently reading for a TLS review. Davies crosses Boyle’s Thoreauvian language about solitude and a place in nature with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during the ongoing housing crisis, she moves into the shed near Land’s End that once served as her father’s architecture office and embarks on turning it into a home.

 

Doggerland by Ben Smith

This debut novel has just two main characters: ‘the old man’ and ‘the boy’ (who’s not really a boy anymore), who are stationed on an enormous offshore wind farm. The distance from the present day is indicated in slyly throwaway comments like “The boy didn’t know what potatoes were.” Smith poses questions about responsibility and sacrifice, and comments on modern addictions and a culture of disposability. He has certainly captured something of the British literary zeitgeist. From page to page, though, Doggerland grew tiresome for me. There is a lot of maritime vocabulary and technical detail about supplies and maintenance. The location is vague and claustrophobic, the pace is usually slow, and there are repetitive scenes and few conversations. To an extent, this comes with the territory. But it cannot be ignored that this is an entirely male world. Fans of the themes and style of The Old Man and the Sea and The Road will get on best with Smith’s writing. I most appreciated the moments of Beckettian humor in the dialogue and the poetic interludes that represent human history as a blip in the grand scheme of things.

  • The Remedy: I’m not a big fan of dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction in general, but a couple of the best such novels that I’ve read by women are Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins.

 

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

The Knife’s Edge: The Heart and Mind of a Cardiac Surgeon by Stephen Westaby

In this somewhat tepid follow-up to Fragile Lives, Westaby’s bravado leaves a bad taste and dilutes the work’s ostensibly confessional nature. He has a good excuse, he argues: a head injury incurred while playing rugby in medical school transformed him into a risk taker. It’s widely accepted that such boldness may be a boon in a discipline that requires quick thinking and decisive action. So perhaps it’s no great problem to have a psychopath as your surgeon. But how about a sexist? Westaby’s persistent references to women staff as “lady GP” and “registrar lady” don’t mitigate surgeons’ macho reputation. It’s a shame to observe such casual sexism, because it’s clear Westaby felt deeply for his patients of any gender. And yet any talk of empathy earns his derision. It seems the specific language of compassion is a roadblock for him. The book is strongest when the author recreates dramatic sequences based on several risky surgeries. Alas, at its close he sounds bitter, and the NHS bears the brunt of his anger. Compared to Fragile Lives, one of my favorite books of 2017, this gives the superhero surgeon feet of clay. But it’s a lot less pleasing to read. (Forthcoming in TLS.)

  • The Remedy: I’m keen to read Direct Red by Gabriel Weston, a memoir by a female surgeon.

 

(Crikey! This was my 600th blog post.)

Continuing the Story: Why I’m Wary of Sequels and Series, with Some Exceptions

Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.

It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).

But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).

A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.

 

So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?

 

I want to know what happens next.

 

WINNERS:

After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.

Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.

 

LOSERS:

Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.

Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.

 

 

I want to spend more time with these characters.

 

WINNERS:

Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.

I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).

Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.

Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.

Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.

 

LOSERS:

H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.

The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.

I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.

The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.

I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.

 


What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.

 

Sequels: yea or nay?

Last-Minute Thoughts on the Booker Longlist

Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).

 

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)

The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.

There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.

This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.

My rating:

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.

Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).

The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.

The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.

I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.

I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.

My rating:


My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.

 

*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)

 

Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.

What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? Do you have any predictions for the shortlist?

My Bibliotherapy Appointment at the School of Life

I’ve been interested in bibliotherapy for years, and I love The Novel Cure (see my review), the learned and playful advice book from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at Alain de Botton’s London School of Life. Earlier this month I had the tremendous opportunity to have a personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life. She’d put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to come for a free session (usually £100) to be observed by a journalist from La Repubblica writing about bibliotherapy – the translation of The Novel Cure has sold remarkably well in Italy. The feature will be part of a special color supplement in February, and I look forward to seeing if my story makes the cut! That is, if I can decipher any of the Italian.

Now, you might not think I’m the kind of person who needs a bibliotherapy assessment since I already find 300+ books per year I want to read; I worried that too, and felt a little bit guilty, but in the end I couldn’t pass up the chance, and Ella was happy to have me.

I took my copy of The Novel Cure along for Ella to sign.

Before my appointment I’d been asked to complete a two-page questionnaire about my reading habits and likes/dislikes, along with what’s going on in my life in general (the ‘therapy’ aspect is real). Once we were set up in the basement therapy room with hot drinks, Ella asked me more about how I read. I’d told her my reading was about two-thirds print books and one-third e-books. Had I ever tried audiobooks or reading aloud, she asked? The answer to both of those is no, I’m afraid. There’s no obvious place for audiobooks in my life because I work from home. However, as I’d mentioned I haven’t been able to get through a Dickens novel in five years, Ella suggested I try listening to one – abridged, it can be more like eight hours long instead of 42, and you still get a terrific story. She also highly recommended New Yorker and Guardian podcasts based around short stories and discussion.

For reading aloud with my husband, Ella prescribed one short story per evening sitting – a way for me to get through short story collections, which I sometimes struggle to finish, and a different way to engage with books. We also talked about the value of rereading childhood favorites such as Watership Down and Little Women, which I haven’t gone back to since I was nine and 12, respectively. In this anniversary year, Little Women would be the ideal book to reread (and the new television adaptation is pretty good too, Ella thinks).

One other reading habit Ella is adamant about is keeping a physical reading journal in which you record the title of each book you read, where you read it, and about a paragraph of thoughts about it. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to every book; more like an aide-mémoire that you can get off the shelf in years to come to remind yourself of what you thought about a book. Specifically, Ella thinks writing down the location of your reading (e.g., on a train to Scotland) allows you to put yourself back in the moment. I tend to note where I bought a book, but not necessarily where I read it – for that, I would probably have to cross-reference my annual book list against a calendar. Since 2010 I’ve kept my book lists and responses in computer files, and I also keep full records via Goodreads, but I can see why having a physical journal would be a good back-up as well as a more pleasant representation of my reading. I’ll think about starting one.

Various books came up over the course of our conversation: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone [appearance in The Novel Cure: The Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic, but Ella brought it up because of the medical theme], Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume [cure: ageing, horror of], and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a nonfiction guide to thinking creatively about your life, chiefly through 20-minute automatic writing exercises every morning. We agreed that it’s impossible to dismiss a whole genre, even if I do find myself weary of certain trends, like dystopian fiction (I introduced Ella to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favorite recent examples).

I came away with two instant prescriptions: Heligoland by Shena Mackay [cure: moving house], about a shell-shaped island house that used to be the headquarters of a cult. It’s a perfect short book, Ella tells me, and will help dose my feelings of rootlessness after moving more than 10 times in the last 10 years. She also prescribed Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry [cure: ageing parents] and an eventual reread of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. As we discussed various other issues, such as my uncertainty about having children, Ella said she could think of 20 or more books to recommend me. “That’s a good thing, right?!” I asked.

Before I left, I asked Ella if she would ever prescribe nonfiction. She said they have been known to do so, usually if it’s written in a literary style (e.g. Robert Macfarlane and Alain de Botton). We chatted about medical memoirs and reading with the seasons for a little while, and then I thanked her and headed on my way. I walked around the corner to Skoob Books but, alas, didn’t find any of the books Ella had mentioned during our session. On the way back to the Tube station, though, I stopped at Judd Books and bought several secondhand and remaindered goodies, including these two:

(Imagine my surprise when I spotted The Year of the Hare in The Novel Cure under midlife crisis! Age seemed to be the theme of the day.)

As soon as I got back from London I ordered secondhand copies of Heligoland, Jitterbug Perfume and The Artist’s Way, and borrowed Family Matters from the public library the next day. Within a few days four further book prescriptions arrived for me by e-mail. Ella did say that her job is made harder when her clients read a lot, so kudos to her for prescribing books I’d not read – with the one exception of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I love.

I’ve put in another order for Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr, plus (for reading aloud) Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman and the collected short stories of Saki. I’m also keen to find The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski, Ella’s final prescription, but as the Persephone Books reprint is pricey at the moment I may hold off and hope to chance upon a secondhand copy later in the year. Ella has been very generous with her recommendations, especially considering that I didn’t pay a penny. I certainly have plenty to be getting on with for now! I’ll report back later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to read some of these prescriptions.

The prescribed books I have gotten hold of so far.

Classic of the Month: George Orwell’s 1984

Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, doublethink, 2 + 2 = 5, Room 101. I’d never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four until this month, but so many of its concepts and catchphrases were familiar to me; they’ve entered into popular culture to a remarkable extent. I found that the basics of the plot, and even the specifics of the horrifying climax, were already somewhere in the back of my mind. That’s how much of a household story this is. And, given the recent rise of authoritarian regimes, 1984 is back in style – if it ever went out.

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Published in 1949, just four years after Animal Farm, the novel imagines a post-Revolution future in which Oceania (England) is alternately at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. It’s a dystopian vision of bombing raids, public hangings and triumphant film reels of refugees drowning. Absolute loyalty to Big Brother and his Party and total hatred of dissidents are required. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth – an ironic name if ever there was one. His job is to doctor newspaper articles to ‘rectify’ the past. Scrutinized constantly by a telescreen, he ‘corrects’ the written record and burns the evidence in memory holes.

But Winston can’t forget that he once saw a photograph proving that several scapegoats who were executed were actually innocent, and ever since he has been unfaithful to the Party in his heart. “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” He makes two bids for freedom: his thought life, as revealed in his diary, and (in Part II) an affair with Julia, a fellow rebel he meets in a rented room above a pawnbroker’s. They join the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein’s anti-Party movement, and read from his manifesto. Impossible to forget, though, that there’s a Part III to come, and their happy nonconformity is unlikely to survive the Thought Police’s vigilance.

A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.

A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.

I can’t say I enjoyed this novel exactly. It was more a case of recognizing its cultural importance and prescience about perennial political trends. What I most liked was the irony of the Party’s rebranding: the Ministry of Love is the torture headquarters, for instance, and the propaganda is rife with oxymorons (“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”). I also appreciated Orwell’s efforts to humanize Winston via his memories of his mother and sister, his estranged wife, and his simple love of beauty – as when he buys a glass and coral paperweight on a whim. Reassuringly, the relationship with Julia isn’t just about sex but is an example of true love against the odds: when Winston tells her “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth,” she replies “I couldn’t care less.”

And yet there are parts of the book that are truly tedious, like the extracts from Goldstein’s manifesto and the appendix on Newspeak. Like many dystopians, this somewhat sacrifices story in the service of ideas. It certainly could have been cut by up to one-third. However, it’s still full of potent reminders like these about resisting misinformation:

I don’t imagine that we can alter anything in our own lifetime. But one can imagine little knots of resistance springing up here and there—small groups of people banding themselves together, and gradually growing, and even leaving a few records behind, so that the next generation can carry on where we leave off.

At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. … We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police, there is no other way.

If he [the average citizen of Oceania] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

I found it rewarding to follow this with Margaret Atwood’s 2003 essay on Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four was the direct model for the feminist dystopia she started writing in the real 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale. She helped me realize something I hadn’t due to my eyes glazing over during the appendix: it’s in the past tense, looking back on a repressive government. In other words, she writes, “the regime has fallen … language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. … Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for.” In homage, she ended The Handmaid’s Tale with a section set hundreds of years in the future, when Offred’s world is studied by academics.

That’s important to remember: one day our current situation, horrible as it might feel to live through, will be nothing but a brief chapter in the history books. It’s up to us, though, to help ensure that whatever succeeds it is much better.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Next month: I plan to choose a short classic from “The Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure; my options are The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë), The Rector’s Daughter (F.M. Mayor), and The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), all of which I own. Let me know which would be your pick.

The Doll’s Alphabet: Stories by Camilla Grudova

Camilla Grudova lives in Toronto and has a degree in Art History and Germany from McGill University of Montreal. The Doll’s Alphabet, her debut collection, sets surreal tales of women’s inner lives against ruined cityscapes. These 13 stories are like perverted fairytales or fragmentary nightmares, full of strange recurring imagery and hazily dystopian setups. Flash fiction-length stories alternate with longer ones that move at a dizzying pace, and the book is roughly half third-person and half first-person – a balance I always appreciate.

img_1162“Unstitching,” the two-page opener, introduces the metaphors and gender politics that form the backdrop for Grudova’s odd imagination. One day Greta realizes she can unstitch herself, removing an outer covering to reveal her true identity; “It brought great relief … like undoing one’s brassiere before bedtime or relieving one’s bladder after a long trip.” Her neighbor Maria does the same, but men – including Greta’s husband – find this intimidating, and are jealous because they don’t seem to have a deeper self to uncover. I was tickled by the idea of women having a secret life unshared by men, but had trouble grasping the actual mechanics of the unstitching: “She did not so much resemble a sewing machine as she was the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based. The closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant.” Huh? This is a case where keeping things vague might have been a better strategy.

Sewing machines keep popping up, along with mermaids, dolls, babies, zoos, factories, and old-fashioned or derelict shops. For example, the narrator of “The Mouse Queen” is a clerk in a doll’s house shop, while her husband Peter works in a graveyard. One night he brings home the corpse of an old dwarf woman, which the narrator decides to stow in the abandoned grocery store under their apartment. Um, naturally.

In “Waxy” (full text available on the Granta website) the narrator works at a sewing machine factory and unlawfully acquires a baby by her sub-par Man, Paul. The sexual violence in this one and in “Moth Emporium” is deeply unsettling: even in these off-kilter fictional worlds women’s bodies are considered a threat and pregnancy is never innocuous.

My two favorites were “Agata’s Machine” (full text available at The White Review) and “Notes from a Spider.” The former is perhaps indebted to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” in its picture of obsessive and ultimately self-destructive activity. It features two Eastern European eleven-year-olds: the narrator is bullied, while her friend Agata is an aloof genius. In her attic room Agata keeps what looks like a sewing machine, but pushing its treadle creates flickering images of Pierrot (a clown) or an angel. This one has a chilling ending. The last story, “Notes from a Spider,” is told by a half-man, half-spider with eight legs. He keeps a zoo for vermin and opens – what else? – a sewing machine museum.

I’ve discovered that I have limited tolerance for outlandish tales like these. I’d be intrigued to find one of Grudova’s stories in an anthology, and I might be happy to read the best four or five of these. But because the same images and concepts keep repeating, the book feels twice as long as it needs to be. Ultimately this book was not for me, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to you if you have enjoyed the more fantastical of the feminist short stories by Karen Russell, Alexandra Kleeman and Helen Simpson.

The Doll’s Alphabet was published on February 14th by Fitzcarraldo Editions. With thanks to publicist Nicolette Praça for the review copy.

My rating: 3-star-rating


London-based publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions produces elegantly simple volumes of long-form essays and niche contemporary fiction, with much of the latter appearing in English translation for the first time. I’ve enjoyed a number of Fitzcarraldo books – particularly On Immunity by Eula Biss, The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, and Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich – and even when the topics don’t hold any particular interest for me (as was the case with Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Pretentiousness by Dan Fox), they are still thought-provoking, out-of-the-ordinary discourses on the topic at hand.

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Coming up next from Fitzcarraldo (March 22nd) is French author Mathias Enard’s novel Compass, which won the 2015 Prix Goncourt. On one sleepless night in Vienna Franz Ritter, an ailing musicologist, entertains memories of travels in the Middle East and his unrequited love for Sarah. Here’s part of the first run-on paragraph as a preview of the hypnotic style:

We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapour that engendered it, nor of the atoms that still compose it but that, soon, will serve other molecules, other bodies, the clouds weighing heavy over Vienna tonight: over whose nape will this water stream, against what skin, on what pavement, towards what river, and this indistinct face on the glass is mine only for an instant, one of the millions of possible configurations of illusion …

Reviews Roundup, January–February

One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – exciting!


The Bookbag

The Noise of Timenoise of time by Julian Barnes: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” Through a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, Barnes questions how art can withstand political oppression. Knowing Barnes’s penchant for stylistic experimentation, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as he so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich has a reckoning with Power. The book is full of terrific one-liners (“Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable”), but there are not many memorable scenes to latch on to.

3.5 star rating

Motions and Momentsmotions and: More Essays on Tokyo (& interview) by Michael Pronko: Pronko’s third collection of essays about his adopted city is an eloquent tribute to a place full of contradictions and wonders. Compared to his earlier collection, Beauty and Chaos, I sense Pronko is now more comfortable in his surroundings, perhaps happier to include himself in ‘we’ rather than looking on passively at ‘them’. For instance – inspired by Japanese women’s perfect outfits – he consciously tries to dress better, and he’s taken to eating ramen and sleeping on a futon, just like a native. The highlight is a set of pieces written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake / tsunami.

4 star rating


BookBrowse

portable veblenThe Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie: Veblen, named after the late-nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist, is one of the oddest heroines you’ll ever meet. She thinks squirrels are talking to her and kisses flowers. But McKenzie doesn’t just play Veblen for laughs; she makes her a believable character well aware of her own psychological backstory. I suspect the squirrel material could be a potential turn-off for readers who can’t handle too much whimsy. Over-the-top silly in places, this is nonetheless a serious account of the difficulty of Veblen and Paul, her neurology researcher fiancé, blending their dysfunctional families and different ideologies – which is what marriage is all about.

4 star rating

weatheringWeathering by Lucy Wood: This atmospheric debut novel is set in a crumbling house by an English river and stars three generations of women – one of them a ghost. Ada has returned to her childhood home after 13 years to scatter her mother Pearl’s ashes, sort through her belongings, and get the property ready to sell. In a sense, then, this is a haunted house story. Yet Wood introduces the traces of magical realism so subtly that they never feel jolting. Like the river, the novel is fluid, moving between the past and present with ease. The vivid picture of the English countryside and clear-eyed look at family dynamics remind me most of Tessa Hadley (The Past) and Polly Samson (The Kindness).

4 star rating


Foreword Reviews

When We Were Invinciblewhen we were by Jonathan Harnisch: In this short novel, a young man wrestles with depression and Tourette’s syndrome, which together drive him to the point of suicide. A series of dreams and chance meetings, along with the possibility of romance and faith in God, pull him back from the edge. The book successfully introduces philosophical themes and gives a sympathetic picture of mental illness. However, it is weaker at filling in background and providing transitions, and there are many awkward, unlikely lines of dialogue. Recommended to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

3 star rating


Nudge

sophie starkThe Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: The twisty, clever story of a doomed filmmaker – perfect for fans of Hausfrau. Who is Sophie Stark? A New York City-based indie director whose four documentary-style movies are “almost more like life than life itself.” Bisexual and with certain traits of high-functioning autism, Sophie is easily misunderstood. She’s a rebel who doesn’t conform to social niceties. The book is told through five first-person reminiscences from the people closest to her. In this respect the novel’s format recalls Kitchens of the Great Midwest. My favorite sections, though, are the reviews of her films, all by the same critic.

4 star rating

casualtiesCasualties by Betsy Marro: A powerful, melancholy debut novel about how war affects whole families, not just individual soldiers. As in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which Casualties resembles in tone if not in style, a bereaved mother sets off on a journey. Ruth’s unlikely companion on the road trip east is a Gulf War amputee who appears little more than a conman but genuinely wants to clean up his act so he can reconcile with his teenage daughter. At times the road trip scenario felt a little far-fetched to me, and Casey too obvious a replacement son figure. Yet as both he and Ruth ponder how much they have lost and the small things they can try to put right, they together form a touching picture of the various ways war’s effects can linger.

4 star rating


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

mr splitfootMr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: “All stories are ghost stories,” Samantha Hunt proclaims in her quirky third novel about the crossover between motherhood and mysticism. In a dual storyline that takes in fundamentalist cults, unlikely mediums and a pregnant woman’s pilgrimage, Hunt asks whether one can ever believe in the unseen. Mr. Splitfoot has the offbeat charm of Scarlett Thomas’s work. While the plot ultimately feels like a bit of a jumble, its vision of unexpected love and loyalty remains compelling. “The End’s always coming,” but it is how one lives in the face of brutality and impending extinction that matters.

3 star rating


I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:

 

rush ohRush Oh! by Shirley Barrett: A debut novel in which an Australian whaler’s daughter looks back at 1908, a catastrophic whaling season but also her first chance at romance. I felt that additional narrators, such as a whaleman or an omniscient voice, would have allowed for more climactic scenes. Still, I found this gently funny, especially the fact that the family’s cow and horse are inseparable and must be together on any outing. There are some great descriptions of whales, too.

3 star rating

felicityFelicity by Mary Oliver: I was disappointed with my first taste of Mary Oliver’s poetry. So many readers praise her work to the skies, and I’ve loved excerpts I’ve read elsewhere. However, I found these to be rather simplistic and clichéd, especially poems’ final lines, e.g. “Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home. / And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.” or “Late, late, but now lovely and lovelier. / And the two of us, together—a part of it.” I’ll definitely try more of her work, but I’ll look out for an older, classic collection.

3 star rating

paulina and franPaulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Full of blunt, faux-profound sentences and smutty, two-dimensional characters. Others may rave about it, but this wasn’t for me. I get that it is a satire on female friendship and youth entitlement. But I hated how the main characters get involved in a love triangle, and once they leave college any interest I had in them largely disappeared. Least favorite lines: “Paulina. She’s like Cleopatra, but more squat.” / “She’s more like Humphrey Bogart” and “She craved the zen-ness of being rammed.”

1 star rating

noah's wifeNoah’s Wife by Lindsay Starck: I kept wanting to love this book, but never quite did. It’s more interesting as a set of ideas – a town where it won’t stop raining, a minister losing faith, homeless zoo animals sheltering with ordinary folk – than as an executed plot. My main problem was that the minor characters take over so that you never get to know the title character, who remains nameless. There’s also a ton of platitudes towards the end. It reminded me most of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Not Forgetting the Whale (another cozy environmental dystopia based around biblical allusions).

 3 star rating

spill simmerSpill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume: This sounded like a charmingly offbeat story about a loner and his adopted dog setting off on a journey. As it turns out, this debut is much darker than expected, but what saves it from being unremittingly depressing is the same careful attention to voice you encounter in fellow Irish writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Enright. It’s organized into four sections, with the title’s four verbs as headings. In a novel low on action, the road trip is much the most repetitive section, extending to the language as well. Even so, Baume succeeds in giving a compassionate picture of a character whose mental state comes into question. (Full review in March 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)

 3 star rating

medium heroMedium Hero by Korby Lenker: Lenker is an indie musician, and the 27 autobiographical stories in his debut collection are about the everyday challenges of being on the road versus trying to pay the bills. Many feature “Korby” or “Simon” as fictional stand-ins, and recurring locations include his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho and his adopted home of Nashville. As the title suggests, Lenker has no illusions about being famous or out of the ordinary. Most of the time he just tries to be a decent guy, the kind who prays for family members in distress even though he’s not sure he believes in God. Lest that sound too serious, though, there are also stories about peeing his pants and the perils of being a metrosexual.

3.5 star rating

glitter and glueGlitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan: Slides down like ice cream. And I say that even though the whole basis for this memoir feels rather thin. Corrigan frames it around five months in the early 1990s when she worked as a nanny for two Australian kids whose mother died of cancer. For a young woman fresh out of college, it was like a trial run for being a mother, and also gave her a new appreciation for everything her own mother had done for her during her Philadelphia Catholic upbringing. If Corrigan’s father was the ‘glitter’ of the family, her mother was the ‘glue’ – holding everything together in the background. This is impressively reconstructed, dialogue and all, from letters, journals and photos.

3.5 star rating

ballroomThe Ballroom by Anna Hope: This novel was inspired by the story of the author’s great-great-grandfather, an Irishman who was a patient at Menston Asylum in West Yorkshire from 1909 to 1918. The novel zeroes in on the long, hot summer of 1911, focusing through alternating close third-person chapters on John Mulligan, a new patient named Ella Fay, and Dr. Charles Fuller, who wants to put his mental hospital at the frontline of eugenics research. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as Wake, but I think it cements Anna Hope’s reputation as a solid historical fiction writer. I hope with her next book she’ll move beyond the years around World War I to consider a less-chronicled era.

3.5 star rating

life without a recipeLife without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber: The Jordanian–American writer reflects on how various food cultures have sustained her through a life that hasn’t always turned out as expected. Three marriages, a move from Portland to Florida, a winding path to motherhood in her forties, and her father’s death from leukemia are some of the main events. Like Sasha Martin’s Life from Scratch, this is more about family and personal history than it is about food (and there are no recipes). Still, food is the stuff of memories, and it is what binds her to two strong characters: her Jordanian father Bud with his stuffed grape leaves, and her maternal grandmother Grace with her frequent baking and the pastries they consumed together in Paris.

4 star rating

arctic summerArctic Summer by Damon Galgut: This fictionalized account of the life of E.M. Forster focuses on the drawn-out composition of A Passage to India, which he began in 1913 but wouldn’t complete and publish until 1924. In between he broke off to write his explicitly homosexual novel Maurice (only published posthumously), spent three years working in Egypt during the war, and served as a secretary to an Indian maharajah. As fictionalized biographies of authors go, I’d rate this somewhere between David Lodge’s A Man of Parts (H.G. Wells) and Colm Tóibín’s superior The Master (Henry James); all three share a heavy focus on the author’s sexuality. “Buggery in the colonies. It wasn’t noble” is one of my favorite random snippets from this novel, and sums up, for me, its slightly prurient aftertaste.

3.5 star rating

Review: The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood

heart goes lastLast month an unsolicited e-copy of The Heart Goes Last landed in my inbox: a random Thursday afternoon present for this Margaret Atwood fan. I was meant to review it for one of the websites I write for, but a misunderstanding meant the book was also assigned to someone else. So while I won’t be getting paid for my review (Boooooo!), I was still grateful for the opportunity to read the book early.

Atwood’s last project before this was the Maddaddam dystopian trilogy, and while there are still some dystopian elements here, she is blending speculative elements with realist social commentary in a way that makes me hope she is leaving some of the overt absurdity of her science-fiction scenarios behind.

maddaddamI didn’t dislike the Maddaddam books per se, but nor did I feel that it was necessary to turn Oryx and Crake into a trilogy, especially when the two following novels only re-examined events from different perspectives, filling in backstory rather than adding new present action (see my Maddaddam review on For Books’ Sake). It felt like a fairly indulgent ten-year project distracting Atwood from producing potential gems along the lines of The Blind Assassin, one of my favorites.

The Heart Goes Last began as four Positron short stories that appeared on the Byliner website between 2012 and 2013. We’re in a vague post-financial crisis, post-environmental apocalypse world, a little like California or The Road but not quite as drastic. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple reduced to living in their car. Charmaine works in a bar, but Stan has lost his job and won’t quite stoop to his brother Conor’s level of moving money around offshore. (It’s no coincidence his brother’s nickname is “Con.”)

One day Charmaine sees an ad for the Positron Project and convinces Stan to sign them up. Participants spend every other month working in the model community of Consilience…and every other month in prison. “DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!” one slogan reads. They share their home with another couple on an alternate schedule.

It’s a little like Pleasantville or The Truman Show: Consilience is stuck somewhere between the 1950s and a sustainable future. Doris Day and Bing Crosby play over the speakers (“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened”), but everyone rides scooters and cheerfully goes about their jobs – Stan as a poultry inspector, and Charmaine in hospital procurement.

Yet Positron has some sordid and even sinister side-projects. With an echo of Animal Farm, Atwood emphasizes how seductive this ultimately oppressive community can seem:

“Hey. Everyone’s different.” / “But some are more different than others.”

Things get weird as foul-mouthed Stan becomes obsessed with the sex lives of their alternates, Max and Jasmine. He imagines their lovemaking to be so much more passionate than his with Charmaine. Yet Charmaine, so seemingly bland and innocent (her worst curse is “Darn it to heck”), is up to something. What is she doing sneaking around derelict houses, and what is her top-secret job within the prison?

Gradually both Stan and Charmaine, separately, get caught up in a conspiracy to take Positron down from the inside. The wacky plot involves “prostibot” sex dolls (tagline: “Better than real”), Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque procedure that reprograms people so they fall in love with the first creature they see after they wake up.

This is all reasonably good fun, but, as with the Maddaddam books, the technology and naming tip over into pure silliness, and here there’s an added layer of raunchiness I’m not accustomed to seeing from Atwood. In distinguishing the fake from the real, the novel goes deep into unpleasant themes of fetishism and voyeurism.

I’m not as down on the book as the Kirkus reviewer (their hatchet job is quite amusing), but I did find it problematic. Charmaine is whiny and annoying throughout, as well as implausibly naïve. All the characters are similarly one-dimensional, even those with secrets. Moreover, the plot takes plenty of unexpected turns with some Shakespearean comedy reversals, but it’s downright ludicrous at times. There’s even a situation straight out of Ted, one of the worst movies I’ve had the bad luck to sample.

In short, a somewhat disappointing one-off from Atwood. Almost the best thing about it is the title, which refers to both biological death and the difficulty of faking true love. I long for the doyenne of Canadian fiction to return to contemporary realism or even historical fiction. There’s just as much scope in those genres for serious social commentary as there is in speculative fiction. Or maybe I should just delve into her extensive back catalogue instead.

My rating: 3 star rating


 

Have you read Atwood’s recent books? What’s your take?

Reviews Roundup, March–April

One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a short taster and a rating (below) so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)

 

BookBrowse

animalskieferThe Animals by Christian Kiefer [BookBrowse is a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free on the website]: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past.

5 star rating

 


The Bookbag

sunlitnightThe Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein: A debut novel as charming as it is quirky. Two young adults from Brooklyn meet in the far north of Norway, where one is an artist’s apprentice and the other is burying a beloved father. Bittersweet family backstories and burgeoning romance make this a winner.

4 star rating

 

Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life by Michael Pronko (& interview): The pleasant and diverse travel essays in this collection draw on Pronko’s 15 years living in Japan. A long-term resident but still an outsider, he is perfectly placed to notice the many odd and wonderful aspects of Tokyo life.

4 star rating

 

The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell: Red Széll started losing his sight at age 19. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, off the Orkney Islands. An inspirational rock-climbing adventure.

3.5 star rating

 

adelineAdeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and focusing on Virginia Woolf’s marriage and later career, this is a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside. For the depth of its literary reference and psychological insight, this is my favorite novel of 2015 so far.

5 star rating

 


Nudge

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss: This wide-ranging work of nonfiction explores the facts, myths and metaphors of vaccination. Biss powerfully captures the modern phenomenon of feeling simultaneously responsible and powerless.

4 star rating

 

Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes: An aspiring mime buys a London canal boat and finds her father in this debut novel. Fellowes writes good descriptive passages and handles past and present capably. However, I was unsure whether Chaplin and Company overall has much narrative verve. What I will take away is an offbeat, bittersweet coming-of-age story.

2.5 star rating

 

gorskyGorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy: An updated version of The Great Gatsby set amongst contemporary London’s über-rich Russians. The novel is wise about the implications of class and immigration. However, as a whole it doesn’t work as well as some updated classics, such as The Innocents (Francesca Segal). In a sense, Goldsworthy’s literary debt is too obvious.

3 star rating

 

Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more personal musings and an overview of the book’s content]: David Lodge, one of Britain’s most celebrated comic novelists, surveys 40 years of personal and social change.

4 star rating

 

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin: The author of The Happiness Project returns with a thorough guide to making and breaking habits, offering different strategies for different personality types.

4 star rating

 

dear committeeDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: A very funny epistolary novel in the form of letters of recommendation written by a grouchy English professor. English graduates and teachers in particular will get a kick out of this, but I daresay anyone who has ever been fed up with bureaucracy at work will sympathize with Fitger.

4 star rating

 

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Time by Barbara Taylor: Taylor was once a mental patient at Friern Hospital. This is an arresting vision of madness from the inside, as well as a history of England’s asylum system.

 4 star rating


We Love This Book

it's what i doIt’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario: Photojournalist Lynsey Addario remembers a decade on the frontline of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and strives for balance in her work and personal life. Journalists face real danger every day. It’s all here: bombs, car accidents, dehydration, beatings, and sexual assault. Yet all the risks over the years have been worth it “to convey beauty in war.”

4 star rating

 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: Essbaum’s arresting debut novel reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate housewife in Zurich. As deplorable as Anna’s actions may be, she is an entirely sympathetic tragic heroine. Watch her trajectory with horror but you cannot deny there is a little of Anna in you.

4 star rating

 

wild beyondThe Wild Beyond by Piers Torday: the suspenseful finale to “The Last Wild,” a fantasy trilogy for younger readers. The environmentalist message is not subtle but it is powerful and should inspire older children. Blending hints of Pullman and Tolkien with up-to-the-minute dystopian themes, this is an inventive take on the classic quest narrative.

3 star rating

 

The Time in Between: A Memoir of Hunger and Hope by Nancy Tucker: Nancy Tucker suffered from anorexia and bulimia for nearly a decade. Written in an original blend of styles, her eating disorder memoir is wrenching but utterly absorbing. You won’t find epiphanies or happy endings here, just a messy, ongoing recovery process – but 21-year-old Tucker narrates it exquisitely.

 4 star rating


Quadrapheme literary magazine

quite a good timeQuite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more of an essay about the context and sociological themes]: Even readers less familiar with Lodge’s work may be interested in the book’s insights into the social changes of post-war Britain. Lodge has not had a conventionally exciting life, and he knows it. From the title onward, his focus is more on his time period than his own uniqueness. He appears as an Everyman who superseded his working-class origins and expectations through hard work and luck.

 4 star rating


Shiny New Books

reading the worldReading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan: Not just another bibliomemoir. A better balance could have been struck between recycled blog content and academic musings on postcolonial literature and censorship. An interest in the politics of literature in translation would be a boon to anyone attempting this.

 2.5 star rating


Foreword Reviews (self-published titles)

movie star dressThe Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana: In this carefully plotted novel, a young Native American finds self-assurance and explores her sexuality by trying on the clothing – and personae – of Hollywood actresses. Spirited characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable read for classic film lovers.

4 star rating

 

Silence by Deborah Lytton: Lytton’s second novel for young adults concerns the unlikely match between a Broadway-bound singer who experiences temporary deafness after an accident and a pianist with a speech impediment and a traumatic past. It is a touching story about the forces that so often threaten us into silence and the struggle to find a voice anyway.

4 star rating

 

woody allenWoody Allen: Reel to Real by Alex Sheremet: Woody Allen fans will prize this comprehensive, readable rundown of his oeuvre. This is an exhaustive study, ideal for established Allen enthusiasts and film students rather than the average moviegoer looking for an introduction.

 4 star rating

 


I also post reviews of most of my casual reading on Goodreads.

 

The Mermaid’s Child by Jo Baker: This was Baker’s second novel, originally published in 2004. It doesn’t nearly live up to Longbourn, but it’s a fairly intriguing blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Malin’s father was a ferryman; her absent mother, so he swears, was a mermaid. Curiously timeless and placeless.

3 star rating

 

dream loverThe Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg: This historical novel about George Sand is a real slow burner. Berg makes the mistake of trying to be too comprehensive about Sand’s life; it would be better to just choose illustrative vignettes or representative love affairs (e.g. with Chopin) rather than include them all. There are two different timelines, 1831–1876 and 1804–1831, but together they’re still just a chronological slog.

3 star rating

 

year my motherThe Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: There’s some gentle magic realism to this mother-daughter memoir. In the difficult year that forms the kernel of the memoir, Cohen’s younger daughter, Eliana, had a leg-lengthening surgery; her adopted older daughter, Julia, met her birth mother, Zoe; and Cohen herself underwent a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer. During radiation sessions, when she had to lie face-down, perfectly still, for 10 minutes at a time, her mother – dead for 20 years – would appear and talk to her.

4 star rating

 

A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson: A wholly engaging tour through everything we know and are still trying to learn about bumblebees. I saw Goulson, founder of the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust, speak at a nature conference in November and found him to be just as enthusiastic and well-informed in person. His occasional anthropomorphisms are unfailingly endearing.

4 star rating

 

black riverBlack River by S.M. Hulse: Back in the town of Black River, Montana after his wife’s agonizing death, Wesley Carver must face the trauma he experienced as a prison guard when he was held hostage and tortured during an inmate riot. Now his attacker is up for parole, and Wes plans to attend the hearing and discourage the jury. At first you might think you’re reading a revenge story, but this is something subtler and sweeter than that. (What a shame that Hulse had to go by her initials, rather than Sarah, to be taken seriously in this genre, even though she’s on a level with Philipp Meyer.)

4 star rating

 

Trumbull Ave. by Michael Lauchlan: I didn’t like this quite as much as the other Made in Michigan books I’ve read, but Lauchlan does a good job of contrasting pastoral and post-industrial views of Detroit through free verse, as in “Detroit Pheasant,” the poem that gives the collection its cover image.

3 star rating

 

What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other by Jeffrey Schultz: I enjoyed these poems set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. They’re full of black humor, sarcasm and realistically pessimistic views of the American future. They’re very densely structured, usually in complete sentences of free verse.

3 star rating