I raced to finish all the September releases on my stack by the 30th, thinking I’d review them in one go, but that ended up being far too unwieldy. There was way too much to say about each of these excellent books (the first two pairs are here and here; Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder is still to come, probably on Wednesday). I’ve mentioned before that the month’s crop of nonfiction was about either books or death. Here’s one of each, linked by their ‘remain’ titles. Both:
Remainders of the Day: More Diaries from The Bookshop, Wigtown by Shaun Bythell
It’s just over five years since many of us were introduced to Wigtown and the ups and downs of running a bookshop there through Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. (I’ve also reviewed the follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller, which was an enjoyable read for me during a 2019 trip to Milan, and 2020’s Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.)
This third volume opens in February 2016. As in its predecessors, each monthly section is prefaced by an epigraph from a historical work on bookselling – this time R. M. Williamson’s 1904 Bits from an Old Bookshop. It’s the same winning formula as ever: the nearly daily entries start with the number of online orders received and filled, and end with the number of customers and the till takings for the day. (The average spend seems to be £10 per customer, which is fine in high tourist season but not so great in November and December when hardly anyone walks through the door.) In between, Bythell details notable customer encounters, interactions with shop helpers or local friends, trips out to buy book collections or go fishing, Wigtown events including the book festival, and the occasional snafu like the boiler breaking during a frigid November or his mum being hospitalized with a burst ulcer.
Reading May Sarton’s Encore recently, I came across a passage where she is reading a fellow writer’s journal (Doris Grumbach’s Coming into the End Zone):
I find hers extremely good reading, so I cannot bear to stop. I am reading it much too fast and I think I shall have to read it again. I know that I must not swallow it whole. There is something about a journal, I think, that does this to readers. So many readers tell me that they cannot put my journals down.
I’ve heard Zadie Smith say the same about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: it’s just the stuff of prosaic, everyday life and yet she refers to his memoirs/autofiction as literary crack.
I often read a whole month’s worth of entries at a sitting. I can think of a few specific reasons why Bythell’s journals are such addictive reading:
- “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” Small-town settings are irresistible for many readers, and by now the fairly small cast of characters in Bythell’s books feel like old friends. Especially having been to Wigtown myself, I can picture many of the locations he writes about, and you get the rhythm of the seasons and the natural world as well as the town’s ebb and flow of visitors.
- (A related point) You know what to expect, and that’s a comforting thing. Bythell makes effective use of running gags. You know that when Granny, an occasional shop helper from Italy, appears, she will complain about her aches and pains, curse at Bythell and give him the finger. Petra’s belly-dancing class (held above the shop) will inevitably be poorly attended. If Eliot is visiting, he is sure to leave his shoes right where everyone will trip over them. Captain the cat will be portly and infuriating.
- What I most love about the series is the picture of the life cycle of books, from when they first enter the shop, or get picked up in his van, to when rejects are dropped at a Glasgow recycling plant. What happens in the meantime varies, with once-popular authors falling out of fashion while certain topics remain perennial bestsellers in the shop (railways, ornithology). There’s many a serendipitous moment when he comes across a book and it’s just what a customer wants, or buys a book as part of a lot and then sells it online the very next day. New, unpriced stock is always quick to go.
Also of note in this volume are his break-up with Amazon, after his account falls victim to algorithms and is suspended, the meta moment where he signs his first book contract with Profile, and the increasing presence of the Bookshop Band, who moved to Wigtown later in 2017. Bythell doesn’t seem to get much time to read – it’s a misconception of the bookselling life that you do nothing but read all day; you’d be better off as a book reviewer if that’s what you want – but when he does, it’s generally an intense experience: E.M. Forster’s sci-fi novella The Machine Stops (who knew it existed?!), Barbara Comyns’s A Touch of Mistletoe, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis.
I’m torn as to whether I hope there will be more year by year volumes filling in to the present day. As Annabel noted, the ‘where they are now’ approach in the Epilogue rather suggests that he and his publisher will leave it here at a trilogy. This might be for the best, as a few more pre-Covid years of the same routines could get old, though nosey parkers like myself will want to know how a confirmed bachelor turned into a family man…
Some favourite lines:
“Quiet day in the shop; even the cat looked bored.” (31 October)
“The life of the secondhand bookseller mainly involves moving boxes from one place to another, and trying to make them fit into a small space, like some sort of awful game of Tetris.”
(10 February and 15 March are great stand-alone entries that give a sense of what the whole is like. There are a lot of black-and-white photos printed amid the text in the first month; it’s a shame these don’t carry on through.)
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
What Remains?: Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking by Rupert Callender
Call me morbid or call me realistic; in the last decade and a half I have read a lot of books about death, including terminal illness and bereavements. I’ve even read several nonfiction works by American mortician Caitlin Doughty. But I’ve not read anything quite like punk undertaker Rupert Callender’s manifesto about modern death and how much we get wrong in our conceptualization and conversations. It was poignant to be reading this in the weeks surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s death – a time when death got more discussion than usual, yes, but when there was also some ridiculous pomp that obscured the basic human facts of it.
Callender is not okay with death, and never has been. When he was seven, his father died of a heart attack at age 63. His 1970s Edinburgh upbringing was shattered and his mother, who he has no doubt was doing her best, made a few terrible mistakes. First, a year before, she’d reassured him that his father wasn’t going to die. Second, she didn’t make him attend the funeral. (I still wish my mother had made me go back to tour my late grandmother’s house one final time when I was seven; instead, I stayed behind and played on a Ouija board with my cousins.) Third, she soon sent Callender away to boarding school, which left him feeling alone and betrayed. And lastly, when she died of cancer when he was 25, she had planned every detail of her funeral – whereas he believes that is a task for the survivors.
An orphan in his late twenties, Callender came across The Natural Death Handbook and it sealed his future. He’d been expelled from school and blown his inheritance; acid house culture had given him a sense of community. Now he had a vocation. The first funeral he coordinated was for a postman named Barry. The fourth was a suicide. Their first child burial was one of his partner’s daughter’s classmates.
Over the next two decades, he and his (now ex-)wife Claire based Totnes’ The Green Funeral Company on old-fashioned values and homespun ceremonies. They oppose the overmedicalization of death and the clinical detachment of places like crematoria. Callender is vehemently anti-embalming – an intrusive process that involves toxic substances. They encourage the bereaved to keep the body at home for the week before a funeral, if they feel able (ice packs like you’d use in a picnic cool bag will work a treat), and to be their own pallbearers to make the memory of the funeral day a physical one. He performs the eulogies himself, and they use cardboard coffins.
This is a slippery work for how it intersperses personal stories with polemic and poetic writing. Despite a roughly chronological throughline, it feels more like a thematic set of essays than a sequential narrative. Callender has turned death rituals into both performance art (including at festivals and in collaboration with The KLF) and political protests (e.g., a public funeral he conducted for a homeless man who died of exposure, the third such death in his town that year). While he doesn’t shy away from the gruesome realities of dealing with corpses, he always brings it back to fundamentals: matter is what we are, but who we were lives on in others’ loving memories. Death rituals plug us into a human lineage and proclaim meaning in the face of nothingness. Whether you’ve seen/read it all or never considered picking up a book about death, I recommend Callender’s sui generis approach.
Some favourite lines:
“[The practice of having official pallbearers] is all part of the emotional infantilising encouraged by the funeral industry, all part of being turned into an audience at one of the most significant moments in your family history, instead of being empowered as a family and a community.”
“each death we experience contains every death we have ever lived through, Russian dolls of bereavement waiting to be unpacked.”
“Only once you are dead can the full arc of your life be clearly seen, and telling that story out loud and truthfully to the people who shared it is a powerful social act that both binds us together and place us within our culture.”
With thanks to Chelsea Green for the proof copy for review.
And as a bonus, given that today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the USA, here’s an excerpt from my Shelf Awareness review of another book that came out last month:
No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies: A Lyric Essay by Julian Aguon
An indigenous human rights lawyer, Aguon is passionate about protecting his homeland of Guam, which is threatened by climate change and military expansion. His tender collage of autobiographical vignettes and public addresses inspires activism and celebrates beauty worth preserving. The U.S. Department of Defense’s plan to site more Marines and firing ranges on Guam will destroy more than 1,000 acres of limestone forest—home to endemic and endangered species, including the Mariana eight-spot butterfly. Aguon has been a lead litigator in appeals rising all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rejecting fatalism, he endorses peaceful resistance. Two commencement speeches, poems, a eulogy and an interview round out the varied and heartfelt collection.
It’s probably a decade or more since I read anything by Daphne du Maurier. The three novels of hers that I know are Rebecca (of course), Jamaica Inn, and The House on the Strand. HeavenAli’s annual reading week was the excuse I needed to pick up the copy of My Cousin Rachel that I grabbed from the closed-down free bookshop in the mall about a year ago as we were clearing it out. I’m glad I finally got to this one: it has a gripping storyline and the title character is a complex woman it’s impossible to make up your mind about.
To start with, we have an opening line that’s sure to make my year-end superlatives post: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” The whole first chapter is heavy with foreboding, most of which I didn’t pick up on. It’s clear at once that the narrator, a young man named Philip Ashley, feels guilty for the situation he finds himself in, but can’t decide whether Rachel shares his culpability. Philip is the ward and heir of his older cousin, Ambrose, who winters in Florence for his health but on his latest trip marries Rachel, a widow and distant half-Italian cousin who also has roots in Cornwall, and stays in Italy.
From what little he learns of her through Ambrose’s increasingly incoherent letters, Philip is predisposed to dislike Rachel. When Ambrose dies of a suspected brain tumour, Philip is alarmed to hear that Rachel has already emptied their Florence villa and is reluctant to meet her when she arrives in Plymouth some weeks later. But she is not what he expected: just 35 and beautiful; with a passion for garden design and herbal medicine; witty and gently flirtatious. Before long Philip is smitten. “Why, in heaven’s name, did she have to be so different and play such havoc with my plans?”
The plot revolves around Ambrose’s unsigned will and what it means for the ownership of the Ashleys’ Cornwall estate. Philip is now 24, but on his 25th birthday, which happens to fall on April Fool’s Day, he will come into his inheritance and can make his own decisions. Will Rachel, notorious for her extravagant spending, bewitch him into altering the will to her advantage? A pearl necklace, hidden letters, a beggar woman, churchyard conversations, tisanes, lavish curtains, and a foppish Italian visitor form the backdrop to this Gothic tale.
I never succeeded in dating the action: the only major clue is that it takes three weeks to travel between southwest England and Florence, which seems to point to the nineteenth century. But a lack of definite markers makes the story feel timeless and almost like a fairy tale. Although she shrewdly looks out for her own interests and can manipulate Philip’s emotions, Rachel is no stereotypical witch. Sally Beauman’s introduction to my Virago paperback usefully points out that we only ever see Rachel through the male gaze (Philip’s perhaps unreliable narration and Ambrose’s letters) and that from the title onward she is defined in relation to men. In making a bid for her own independent life, she is the true heroine of what Beauman calls du Maurier’s “most overtly feminist” novel.
I always love the murky atmosphere of du Maurier’s work, but can find her plots contrived. However, this ended up being my favourite of the four I’ve read so far. Initially, it reminded me of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, while by the end I was wondering if Janet Fitch took it as inspiration for White Oleander. There’s an unusual pair for you! Make of it what you will…
What else should I read by du Maurier?
Last year I reviewed Tenth of December by George Saunders on its title date; this year I couldn’t resist rereading one of my favorites from 2014 for today’s date (which just so happens to be Bloomsday, made famous by James Joyce’s Ulysses), The Sixteenth of June.
I responded to the novel at length when it first came out. No point in reinventing the wheel, so here are mildly edited paragraphs of synopsis from my review for The Bookbag:
Maya Lang’s playful and exquisitely accomplished debut novel, set on the centenary of the original Bloomsday, transplants many characters and set pieces from Ulysses to near-contemporary Philadelphia. Don’t fret, though – even if, like me, you haven’t read Ulysses, you’ll have no trouble following the thread. In fact, Lang dedicates her book to “all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven’t wanted to try).” (Though if you wish to spot parallels, pull up any online summary of Ulysses; there is also a page on Lang’s website listing her direct quotations from Joyce.)
On June 16, 2004, brothers Leopold and Stephen Portman have two major commitments: their grandmother Hannah’s funeral is happening at the local synagogue in the morning; and their parents’ annual Bloomsday party will take place at their opulent Delancey Street home in the evening. Around those two thematic poles – the genuine emotions of grief and regret on the one hand, and the realm of superficial entertainment on the other – the novel expands outward to provide a nuanced picture of three ambivalent twenty-something lives.
The third side of this atypical love triangle is Nora, Stephen’s best friend from Yale – and Leo’s fiancée. Nora, a trained opera singer, is still reeling from her mother’s death from cancer one year ago. She’s been engaging in self-harming behavior, and Leo – a macho, literal-minded IT consultant – just wants to fix her. Nora and Stephen, by contrast, are sensitive, artistic souls who seem better suited to each other. Stephen, too, is struggling to find a meaning in death, but also to finish his languishing dissertation on Virginia Woolf.
Literature is almost as potent a marker of upper-class status as money here: some of the Portmans might not have even read Joyce’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop them name-dropping and maintaining the pretense of being well-read. While Lang might not mimic the extremes of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, she prioritizes interiority over external action by using a close third-person voice that shifts between her main characters’ points of view. Their histories and thoughts are revealed mostly through interior monologues and conversations. Lang’s writing is full of mordant shards of humor; one of my favorite lines was “No one in a eulogy ever said, She watched TV with the volume on too loud.”
During my rereading, I was captivated more by the portraits of grief than by the subtle intellectual and class differences. I appreciated the characterization and the Joycean peekaboo, and the dialogue and shifts between perspectives still felt fresh and effortless. I could relate to Stephen and Nora’s feelings of being stuck and unsure how to move on in life. And the ending, which I’d completely forgotten, was perfect. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much the second time around, but it’s still a treasured signed copy on my shelf.
My original rating (June 2014):
My rating now:
Readalikes: Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (my upcoming Doorstopper of the Month).
(See also my review of Lang’s recent memoir, What We Carry.)
Alas, I’ve also had a couple of failed rereading attempts recently…
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
I remembered this as a zany family history quest turned into fiction. A Jewish-American character named Jonathan Safran Foer travels to (fictional) Trachimbrod, Ukraine to find the traces of his ancestors and, specifically, the woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. I had totally forgotten about the comic narration via letters from Jonathan’s translator/tour guide, Alexander, who fancies himself a ladies’ man and whose English is full of comic thesaurus use (e.g. “Do not dub me that,” “Guilelessly yours”). This was amusing, but got to be a bit much. I’d also forgotten about the dense magic realism of the historical sections. As with A Visit from the Goon Squad, what felt dazzlingly clever on a first read (in January 2011) failed to capture me a second time. [35 pages]
Interestingly, Foer’s mother, Esther, released a memoir earlier this year, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. It’s about the family history her son turned into quirky autofiction: a largely fruitless trip he took to Ukraine to research his maternal grandfather’s life for his Princeton thesis, and a more productive follow-up trip she took with her older son in 2009. Esther Safran Foer was born in Poland and lived in a German displaced persons camp until she and her parents emigrated to Washington, D.C. in 1949. Her father committed suicide in 1954, making him almost a belated victim of the Holocaust. The stories she hears in Ukraine – of the slaughter of entire communities; of moments of good luck that allowed her parents to, separately, survive and find each other – are remarkable, but the book’s prose, while capable, never sings. Plus, she references her son’s novel so often that I wondered why someone would read her book when they could read his instead.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)
This was an all-time favorite when it first came out. I remembered a sophisticated homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, featuring a biracial family in Cambridge, Mass. I remembered no specifics beyond a giant music store and (embarrassingly) an awkward sex scene. Howard Belsey’s long-distance rivalry with a fellow Rembrandt scholar gets personal when the Kipps family relocates from London to the Boston suburbs for Monty to be the new celebrity lecturer at the same college. Howard is in the doghouse with his African-American wife, Kiki, after having an affair. The Belsey boy and Kipps girl have an awkward romantic history. Zora Belsey is smitten with a lower-class spoken word poet she meets after a classical concert in the park when they pick up each other’s Discmans by accident (so dated!). All of the portraits felt like stereotypes to me, and there was so much telling, so much backstory, so many unnecessary secondary characters. Before I would have said this was my obvious Women’s Prize winner of winners, but now I have no idea what I’ll vote for. [107 pages]
Currently rereading: Watership Down by Richard Adams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
To reread soon: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty & Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Done any rereading lately?
Later today we’re making a pilgrimage to Bookbarn International,* one of my favorite secondhand bookshops in the UK, on the way (ish) to seeing friends in Bristol and Exeter for the weekend. In the past we’ve managed to drop in to Bookbarn annually, but it’s been nearly 2.5 years since our last visit. At that special Harvest Supper and Scrabble** tournament in October 2017 (which I wrote about here), I got to meet William Pryor, the chairman of Bookbarn, and he gave me a copy of his grandmother Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece.
Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin (the first child of his son George) but never got to meet him as he died three years before her birth. Her book has the subtitle “A Cambridge Childhood,” which perfectly conveys the aim. This is not a comprehensive family history or autobiography, but a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place. Raverat was born in 1885, but she begins two years earlier, when her American mother, Maud Du Puy, was 21 and in England for the first time to spend a summer with her great-aunt and -uncle. She had three suitors during that time, all of them Fellows of Trinity College. The rules had only just been changed to allow Fellows to marry, so George Darwin would be among the first married members, and Gwen was in the first batch of offspring.
Period Piece is a charming, witty look at daily life from the 1880s through about 1909 – ending with the marriage of her cousin Frances, which seemed to signal a definitive end to their collective youth. Raverat focuses on everyday sights and sounds but also points out life’s little absurdities. She proceeds thematically rather than chronologically, taking up topics like her mother’s parenting theories; her boarding school education and budding love of art; visits to Grandmamma at Down House, Kent; childhood fears and ghost stories; the five Darwin uncles; religion; sports and games; clothing; and social events such as dances.
Writing towards the end of her life and in the middle of the twentieth century, Raverat neatly draws contrasts between old-fashioned propriety and modern mores. For example, as a child she was often called upon to act as a chaperone to courting couples, and when ladies boated past a watering hole where boys swam naked, they would cover their faces with parasols. She herself managed to avoid the matter of sex entirely until she was an adult, though she does remember looking to an encyclopedia to find out where babies come from.
The utter reliance on servants, a profusion of buttons on every garment, and forced trips to church are a few elements that might strike today’s readers as alien. One incident felt eerily contemporary to me, though: once, walking home alone at around 10 p.m., Gwen saw a gang of dodgy-looking undergraduates carrying a drunk or dead young woman down the street and into a pub. After much internal debate, she decided not to say a word about it to her parents.
I often wonder how novelists and filmmakers get a historical setting just right. The answer is, probably by reading books like this one that so clearly convey quotidian details most people would leave out, e.g. a list of every piece of clothing a lady wore or a rundown of the steps to getting her mother out the door to catch the 8:30 train for a day out in London. Those who have visited or lived in Cambridge will no doubt enjoy spotting familiar locations. There are also amusing cameo appearances from Virginia Stephen (Woolf) and E.M. Forster.
Raverat, a wood engraver, peppered Period Piece with her own illustrations (I have photographed one favorite, at left, but you can see them all in the archive here) – a lovely supplement to the highly visual text. Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, this is a very funny and impressively thorough memoir that could be used by anyone as a model for how to capture childhood. It has never been out of print, and still deserves to be widely read.
*They’ve recently had a renovation that I helped to crowdfund; I’m looking forward to seeing the results. I’ll also be sure to report back on my book haul.
**I was especially delighted to see that the Darwin family had a favorite word-making game, described in the middle of the “Sport” chapter, that sounds a fair bit like Scrabble – except that you only added one letter at a time and could scramble the letters to change the meaning.
Some favorite lines:
(describing one of her mother’s early letters home to America) “They got [rooms for the night] at last at ‘the St Pancreas Hotel’. I was delighted to find this spelling so early, as, to the end of her days, my mother always considered the saint and the internal organ as identical.”
(of their French nurserymaids) “By a provision of Providence they were always called Eugenie, so that when a new one came she could be called Newgenie.”
“The faint flavour of the ghost of my grandfather hung in a friendly way about the whole place [Down] – house, garden and all. … In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas.”
I read the 2014 Collector’s Library edition, an attractive pocket-sized book with gilt edging and a built-in red ribbon bookmark.
One of the best things about being a home-based freelancer is that I can arrange my work schedule to suit my life. Having my birthday fall on a Friday this year was especially good because it meant I got until Monday to submit my daily editing load. My husband was working as usual, so I spent much of the day reading under the cat and charity shopping. I bought seven books, a nice mixture of England-themed nonfiction and juicy novels, plus new-to-me comfy black flats. (Total spend: £10.25.) Being short on time that evening, we lazily ordered delivery pizza for probably the first time in eight years, followed by cocktails and cake.
I didn’t end up using my literary cakes and cocktails books this year, but that gives me a chance to proffer my own pun names for what we did make. We tried two gin cocktails we’d found recipes for in the Guardian. The one they called “Elderflower Collins” was absolutely delicious: lemon juice, elderflower cordial and gin, topped up with San Pellegrino Limonata (lemon soda) and garnished with a lemon slice and a mint sprig. I dub it “A Visit from Mr. Collins,” as in the Bennet girls will have to down quite a few of these before…
Unfortunately, the second cocktail was not a hit. The “Miss Polly Hawkins” combines chamomile-flavored gin (I steeped two chamomile teabags in 60 mL of gin for a week), rose syrup (we didn’t have it or want to buy it so substituted our homemade rosehip syrup), plain gin and egg white. Egg white is a fairly frequent ingredient in cocktails – it adds gloss and body – but we found that it made the drink gloopy. That plus the overall floral and medicinal notes meant this was fairly hard to swallow; we had to drown it in sparkling water and ice cubes to get it down. Alas, I modify Iris Murdoch to call this “An Unappealing Rose.”
However, my cake was an unqualified success. I usually go for chocolate or chocolate/peanut butter desserts, but decided to be different this year and requested the Italian Pear and Ginger Cheesecake from Genevieve Taylor’s cookbook A Good Egg. It was sophisticated and delicious. Running with the Italy thing, I’ll pick out a Forster title and call it “Where Angels Pear to Tread.” (It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; then again, neither do a lot of the names in Tequila Mockingbird and Scone with the Wind!)
On Sunday the birthday fun continued with a trip to Hungerford Bookshop (our nearest independent bookshop) and a gentle country walk. I bought two secondhand books but came away with a total of four – in the basement they have a table covered in free proof copies, so my husband and I grabbed one each (how I wish I could have taken the lot!). It’s a great idea for rewarding customer loyalty and dealing with unwanted proofs; perhaps I’ll donate a stack of mine to them next time I’m there.
This year I got a Kindle case and two bookshop-themed memoirs as presents: The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch and Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer. I started reading the former – the story of a married couple opening a bookshop in recession-era Virginia – right away. I also got a poster frame so I can finally hang my literary map of the British Isles on the wall above my desk, and a “Shhhh, reading in progress” mug.
Consuming tasty food and drink + acquiring a baker’s dozen of books + getting out into the countryside = a great birthday weekend!
What are the ingredients for your perfect birthday?
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 Noise 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.
Motions and Moments: 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.
The 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.
Weathering 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).
When We Were Invincible 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.
The 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.
Casualties 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.
Mr. 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.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Rush 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.
Felicity 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.
Paulina & 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.”
Noah’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).
Spill 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.)
Medium 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.
Glitter 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.
The 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.
Life 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.
Arctic 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.
Last week I wrote in praise of doorstoppers – books over 500 pages. But I also love really short books: there’s just as much writing skill involved in making a narrative concise, and it can be supremely satisfying to pick up a book and polish it off within a couple hours, especially if you’re in a situation of captured attention as on a plane. Being honest and slightly selfish for a moment, short books are also a great way to build up a flagging year list.
Below I highlight poetry collections, memoirs, short stories and novellas that should be on your agenda if you’re looking for a quick read (number of pages in brackets after each title):
I try to always have a book of contemporary poetry on the go, usually by a British poet since I pluck these at random from my local public library shelves. Poetry collections aren’t always ‘quick’ reads, nor should they be, because you often have to read a poem more than once to understand it or truly appreciate its techniques. Still, with most poetry books numbering somewhere between 45 and 90 pages, even if you parcel them out over days or weeks they’ll take much less time than a novel. Pick up something by Mark Doty, Kathleen Jamie, David Harsent or Christopher Reid and you’ll have plenty of beautiful verse to ponder.
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth by Ruth Padel 
- All One Breath by John Burnside 
- Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being by Paul Durcan 
Depending on how thorough they are, autobiographies can often hover around 300 or 400 pages. Looking through my shelves, though, I’ve spotted a few in the 140–160 page range: My Movie Business by John Irving , The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby , and Winter by Rick Bass . Another short one well worth reading is the unusual The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey , a story about debilitating illness and taking comfort from nature.
Abigail Thomas, one of my favorite memoirists, writes in an episodic style that makes her 200-page books fly by as if they were half that length. Also, Anne Lamott has written two very short faith memoirs that would serve as a good introduction to her style and content for those who haven’t read Traveling Mercies et al.: Help Thanks Wow  and Stitches .
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso 
- The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander 
- What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas  – also included on my BookTrib list of mother–daughter memoirs to read for Mother’s Day
I used to shy away from short stories because I didn’t think they were worth the emotional investment, but recently I’ve decided I really like the rhythm of picking up a set of characters, a storyline and a voice and then, after 20 or so pages, following an epiphany or an aporia (or utter confusion), trading them in for a whole new scenario. Short stories are also the perfect length for reading during a quick meal or car ride. Two short story collections made it onto my “Best of 2014” list: White Man’s Problems by Kevin Morris and The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant.
Recently reviewed and recommended (no page numbers listed here because each story can stand alone):
- Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
- Funny Once by Antonya Nelson
- Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
With some credits for free Penguin books I got hold of Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) , a book I’d been hankering to read ever since I came across that terrific title. It’s an enjoyable academic comedy and locked room mystery, with nods to Borges and Poe (though I probably didn’t get them all).
I also recently discovered Peirene Press, which exclusively publishes novellas in translation. Their motto is “Contemporary European Literature. Thought provoking, well designed, short.” They publish the novellas in thematic trilogies, with headings such as “Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy” and “Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets.” The book I own from Peirene (scored from a secondhand bookshop in Henley-on-Thames for £1), from the “Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments” series, is Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson  (translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah).
It’s an odd little book, with a mixture of past and present tense and first-, third- and first-person plural narration. Set in the village of Downe, it’s peripherally about the title character, Charles Darwin’s gardener Thomas Davies, a new widower with two children, one of whom has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (newly identified). It’s thin on plot, it must be said. Daniel Lewis, the verger of Downe for five years, was dismissed for stealing from the church and is beaten up when he comes back to town; some characters think and talk about Darwin’s theory and Davies’s bereavement; there’s an overturned cart.
My favorite section, “At the Anchor,” is composed of conversations at the village pub, and my favorite individual lines reflect on Darwin’s influence on contemporary thought:
“Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks.”
“Great men are remembered, like Mr Darwin, a genuine monolith. We small folk are mere sand, washed by the waves as they go back and forth.”
“People in future decades and centuries will react to our ideas superciliously, as if we were children playing at thinking. We shall look most amusing in the light of new thoughts and inventions.”
If you’re looking to get through a classic in an afternoon, why not try one of these (full text available for free online through Project Gutenberg or other initiatives): Animal Farm by George Orwell , Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  or Flush by Virginia Woolf (her spoof ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel) . E. M. Forster’s novels also read very quickly, and several of John Steinbeck’s novels are quite short. Whether or not you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn movie, you’ll want to read the sparkling, bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote ; my edition also includes several of his best known short stories, including the wonderful “A Christmas Memory.”
I recently finished The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald ; all her books are similarly concise, so you may want to give her a try. The next novella on the pile for me is Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons . I had never heard of the author, but the title and description lured me into buying it from a library book sale on a trip back to America (for 25 cents, why not?!). It’s a Southern Gothic story with an eleven-year-old narrator whom Walker Percy likened to Holden Caulfield. The alluring first line: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”
For more ideas, see these two Publishers Weekly’s lists:
“10 Best Books Shorter than 150 Pages” (only repeats one of my suggestions)
Off topic, but today is a milestone for me: it marks exactly two years that I’ve been a freelance writer!
Are you fond of short books? Do you prefer them to doorstoppers? What are some of your favorite novellas? All comments welcome!