Two rather different books to start off #WITMonth: a brief (c. 70 pp.) account of a mother’s decline with dementia; and a haiku-inspired novel of the quest for life and death in disorienting modern Japan. Both are admirable but detached – a judgment I seem more likely to make about work in translation – so don’t earn my wholehearted recommendation. My rating for both:
I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux (1997; English translation, 1999)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
This is the second short, somewhat harrowing autobiographical work I’ve read by Ernaux this year (after Happening, her account of her abortion, in March). A collection of mostly present-tense fragments, it’s drawn from the journal she kept during her mother’s final years, 1983–6. “I Remain in Darkness” were the last words her mother wrote, in a letter to a friend (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” which more literally means “I have not left my night,” strikes me as cryptic and poetic, though maybe I’m missing a colloquialism). Slipping into Alzheimer’s, her mother spent these years in a long-term hospital geriatric ward. Ernaux could see her mother becoming like a child again:
This morning she got up and, in a timid voice, said: ‘I wet the bed. I couldn’t help it.’ The same words I would use when I was a child.
Now her room is on the third floor. A bunch of women circle us, addressing my mother with the familiar tu form: ‘You’re going to be in our group?’ They are like kids talking to the ‘new girl’ at school. When I take leave of her, she looks at me in panic and confusion: ‘You’re not leaving, are you?’
—and herself becoming like her mother: “It’s crystal-clear: she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me – the wrinkles on her legs, the creases in her neck”. Ernaux vacillates between guilt, fear and cruelty in how she approaches her mother. She tenderly shaves the older woman’s face every week when she visits, and buys her all manner of sweets. Food is one of her mother’s last remaining pleasures, though she often misses her mouth when she tries to eat the cakes her daughter brings.
Superficially, this is very similar to another book I’ve reviewed this year, Be With by Mike Barnes, a series of short letters written during his time as a caregiver to his mother, who also has Alzheimer’s. But where Barnes is reassuring and even humorous at times, Ernaux refuses to give any comfort, false or otherwise. This hospital is a bleak place that reeks of urine and is hiding excrement everywhere (really). A lazier reviewer than I generally try to be would brandish the word “unflinching.”
The entries from a few days after her mother’s death explain what the author is trying to do with her work, whether memoir or autofiction: “I am incapable of producing books that are not precisely that – an attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage … I’ll have to tell her story in order to ‘distance myself from it’.” That dual purpose, saving and distancing, makes her work honest yet unemotional, such that I have trouble warming to it.
This is easily read in a sitting. I may try again to get into Ernaux’s novel The Years, which, like the Poschmann (below), was on this past year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist.
I Remain in Darkness will be released on September 18th. With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (2017; English translation, 2018)
[Translated from the German by Jen Calleja]
(Though I read this mostly in July, I finished it on August 1st, so I’m including it in my WIT Month coverage. It’s the first of the author’s books to be made available in English.)
A man wakes up from a dream convinced that his wife is cheating on him, and sets off for Tokyo on a whim, where he embarks on a Bashō-inspired pilgrimage to the pine islands of Matsushima. This Gilbert Silvester, a beard historian, acquires an unlikely companion: a young man named Yosa, who’s looking for the best place to kill himself and takes Gilbert along to cliffs and forests famous for their suicide rates. Although there are still cherry blossoms and kabuki theatre, Gilbert soon learns that this isn’t Bashō’s Japan anymore.
From the haikus he composes and the letters he writes to Mathilda back home, we track his inward journey as it contrasts with the outward ones he undertakes. I enjoyed the surreal touches – Yosa says he once dated a woman who was actually a fox – and the Murakami setup (the wife’s adultery and the hair patterns are reminiscent of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).
Somehow, though, for me this is a book that succeeds more in its ideas (searching for the essence of a place but only finding the clichés; coniferous versus deciduous trees as a metaphor for what lasts in life versus what fades) than in its actual execution. It never all quite comes together, and the inconclusive ending makes you question how much of this has been a dream or a fantasy. It’s ambitious and intellectually impressive, but something about its dignified aloofness is hard to be enthusiastic about.
Do watch Lost in Translation, one of my favorite films, afterwards…
And a DNF: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The time has come to admit that I simply do not appreciate Ferrante’s work. I could only make it 25 pages into this one; I’ve read a different short novel of hers (The Lost Daughter), and skimmed another (My Brilliant Friend). While I enjoyed the narrator’s voice well enough, and loved the scene in which her errant husband finds broken glass in his dinner, I found that I had no interest in how this seemingly predictable story of the end of a marriage might play out.
Up next for Part II: The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada, on its way from Charco Press, and The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmarin Fenollera.
Are you doing any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?
My August is looking chock-full of reading projects – many of them self-imposed, to be fair.
20 Books of Summer: I’ve finished a few more books and just need to write them up; I’m in the middle of another nine, including Tisala as my doorstopper for the month.
Summer theme: Books with summer/sun/shine in the title, and others set in summer, like The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, my classic for the month.
Women in Translation month: I’ve started the Ferrante and also want to get to the Fenollera and start the Flores stories (all those Fs!), which are coming out from Oneworld in November. Also, in yesterday’s post I received a surprise copy of a forthcoming Fitzcarraldo Editions essay by Annie Ernaux about her mother’s dementia, so I will squeeze that in too.
Robertson Davies week: In the final week of August I’ll be joining in with Lory’s (The Emerald City Book Review) Robertson Davies readalong by starting Fifth Business, the first volume in The Deptford Trilogy.
May Sarton article: I’m writing a profile for Bookmarks magazine this month, and am currently in the throes of research: finishing the Margot Peters biography I started last year and set aside for ages; reading another novel or two by Sarton; skimming back through various of the journals, novels and poems I’ve read before; and exploring other external sources. Luckily, my husband was able to forage for loads from his university library for me.
What’s keeping you busy this month?
“Centre of fashion, business and finance,” “muggy and mosquito-ridden in summer” – from the guidebook descriptions it could hardly sound less like our kind of place, and yet Milan is where we’re off to tomorrow. While it wouldn’t be our first-choice destination, my husband is attending a landscape ecology conference there and presenting a paper; I’m going along for the week to have a holiday. It’s Italy. Why not?! I doubt the northern plain will be as much to our taste as Tuscany, which we explored on a wonderfully memorable trip in April 2014 (on which I first drank coffee), but there will still be history and culture around every corner, and we plan on eating very well and getting out of the city to see some of the Lakes region, too.
We’re traveling the slow way: a train to London; the Eurostar to Paris, where we’ll stay for one night; and a seven-hour train ride to Milan the following day. If the weather remains as hot as it has been in Continental Europe (e.g. 40°C / 105°F in Paris this week – ugh!), I’m not sure I’ll be up for a lot of solo sightseeing. I’ll put in a much-reduced work load for the week, but for much of the rest of the time when my husband is at the conference I may just lounge around our Airbnb, with a stack of print books, in front of the USB-powered fan I’ve ordered.
So of course I’ve been having great fun thinking about what reading material I might pack. I’ve assembled a main stack, and a subsidiary stack, of books that seem appropriate for one or more reasons.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell – To read on the Eurostar between London and Paris. Orwell’s first book and my first try with his nonfiction: an account of the living conditions of the poor in two world cities.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Classic of the month
Vintage 1954, Antoine Laurain – For a Nudge review; to read en route to and in Paris. Drinking a 1954 Beaujolais transports a Parisian and his neighbors – including an Airbnb guest – back to the 1950s. Sounds like good fun.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Lit in translation
The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux – To read on the long train ride to Milan. Theroux travels from London to Tokyo on trains, then returns via the Trans-Siberian Express. I’ve always meant to try his work.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Travel classics
Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb – A Hungarian novel set on an Italian honeymoon. Try to resist these first lines: “On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.”
Bonus goals it fulfills: Lit in translation; 20 Books of Summer substitute (horse on the cover)
The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmarin Fenollera – Promises to be a cozy, fluffy novel about what happens when librarian Prudencia Prim arrives in a small village. I had the feeling it was set in Italy, but maybe it’s actually Spain? I’ll find out.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Lit in translation
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante – I’ve tried two Ferrante novels and not been too impressed, yet still I keep trying. This one’s set during a heat wave. Maybe I’ll get on with it better than I did with My Brilliant Friend or The Lost Daughter?
Bonus goal it fulfills: Lit in translation
The extra stack:
Heat Wave, Penelope Lively – The title says it all.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Reading with the seasons
Barnacle Love, Anthony De Sa – An extra animal book for 20 Books of Summer.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – A novel I’ve meant to read for years. I’ve earmarked it for our super-long day of travel back to the UK.
Bonus goal it fulfills: Doorstopper of the Month
Considering getting from the library:
The Last Supper, Rachel Cusk – I’ve only made it through one of the three Cusk books I’ve attempted, but perhaps a travel memoir is a more surefire selection?
On my Kindle:
The Fourth Shore, Virginia Baily – There’s an Italian flavor to this WWII novel, as there was to Baily’s previous one, Early One Morning. However, I’ve heard that this is mostly set in Tripoli, so I won’t make it a priority.
From Scratch, Tembi Locke – An actress’s memoir of falling in love with an Italian chef and her trips to his family home in Sicily with their adopted daughter. (Foodie and bereavement themes!)
I’ll read the first few pages of lots of these to make sure they ‘take’ and will try to pack a sensible number. (Which probably means all but one or two!) We’ll be packing light in general, since there’s only so many clothes one can wear in such heat, so I don’t mind carrying a backpack full of books – I’m used to it from weekly treks to the library and flights to America, and I know that I don’t find reading on Kindle as satisfying, though it certainly is convenient for when you’re on the go.
If you’d like to put in a good word for any of the above options, or want to dissuade me from a book I might not find worthwhile, let me know.
Meanwhile, I’ve been slow out of the gate with my 20 Books of Summer, but I finally have a first set of mini-reviews coming up tomorrow.
Other summer-themed books that I have on hand or will get from the library soon include One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and Sunburn by Laura Lippman.
How’s your summer reading going?
Will you do any reading ‘on location’ this year?
I launched my blog four years ago today. Is that ages, or no time at all? Like I said last year, it feels like something I’ve been doing forever, and yet there are bloggers out there who are coming up on a decade or more of online writing about books.
This is my 542nd post, so the statistics tell me that I’ve been keeping up an average of just over 2.5 posts a week. Although I sometimes worry about overwhelming readers with ‘too many’ posts, I keep in mind that a) no one is obliged to read everything I post, b) a frequently updated blog is a thriving blog, and c) it only matters that it’s a manageable pace for me.
In the last year or so, I’ve gotten more involved in buddy reads and monthly challenges (things like Reading Ireland Month, 20 Books of Summer, R.I.P., Margaret Atwood Reading Month, and Novellas and Nonfiction in November); I’ve continued to take part in literary prize shadow panels and attend literary events when I can. I’ve hosted the Library Checkout for nearly a year and a half now and there are a few bloggers who join in occasionally (more are always welcome!). The posts I most enjoy putting together are write-ups of my travels, and seasonal and thematic roundups, which are generally good excuses to read backlist books from my own shelves instead of getting my head turned by new releases.
Some statistics from the past year:
My four most viewed posts were:
I got the most likes in December 2018, and the most unique visitors and comments in August.
My four favorite posts I wrote in the past year were:
Thanks to everyone who has supported me this past year, and/or all four years, by visiting the site, commenting, re-tweeting, and so on. You’re the best!
The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.
Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.
One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).
The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.
Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
An offer of the latest Latin American import from Charco Press prompted me to scour my shelves and see what other books I might add for #WITMonth. I dug out two novella-length books I’d bought secondhand over the past year to make it a trio. My rating for all:
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
[Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein]
Leda is a 47-year-old teacher on holiday in southern Italy. She mostly sits on the beach, minding her own business, but still gets drawn into the minor daily dramas of a large Neapolitan family. One woman is pregnant; another has a small child named Elena who is devastated at losing her doll. Their mother–daughter dynamic takes Leda back to the time when she abandoned her own daughters and didn’t see them for three years. She temporarily found it impossible to reconcile motherhood with her career and her general sense of herself. Leda sees herself as part of a “chain of mute or angry women” – “I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother.”
I was definitely on board for the memories of motherly guilt. Where Ferrante lost me was when Leda steals the doll the child left behind and takes it up to her room to care for it – washing it, buying it new clothes, etc. Every time she sets out to give the doll back or at least leave it somewhere it will be found, she finds another excuse to put it off. Leda herself is unsure why she’s fixated on the doll; “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” she says early on.
Most likely the doll could be interpreted as a symbol of Leda’s desire to be part of a functional family, to get a second chance at perfection with her daughters. But the book was a little too strange for me, and I never really engaged with the Neapolitan characters. After this and a skim of My Brilliant Friend a couple years back, I doubt I’ll pick up anything else by Ferrante. The themes and style of this one reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.
“Life can have an ironic geometry. Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me. I didn’t think the city could contain life forms different from those I had known as a child, violent or sensually lazy, tinged with sentimental vulgarity or obtusely fortified in defense of their own wretched degradation. I didn’t even look for them, those forms, in the past or in a possible future. I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo
[Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe]
Fish Soup contains two novellas (one of them, Sexual Education, was previously unpublished) separated by a set of seven short stories, and marks the first time the Colombian author Margarita García Robayo’s work has appeared in English. I especially liked the title story, in which a widower starts to smell his dead wife Helena’s fish soup in the bar that he owns and goes to investigate, all the while mixing up his dreams and memories with what’s really happening.
My other favorite piece was the opening novella, Waiting for a Hurricane, in which the narrator longs for escape from her seaside home, wanting nothing more than to be a “foreigner.” She starts a law degree but gives it up to become an air hostess, making flights to and from Miami and elsewhere. From her childhood onward, Gustavo has been a major presence in her life, teaching her to prepare fish and telling her stories, but there’s an uncomfortable element to their relationship that’s never really addressed. The mixture of quirky happenings and darker material reminded me of Swallowing Mercury, while the cancer theme of the story “Like a Pariah” recalls Hair Everywhere.
One of my frequent issues with short fiction is a preponderance of inconclusive endings that make you wonder what the point could be. I experienced that a few times with this collection, especially at the close of Waiting for a Hurricane. Judging by the title, though, the main message I drew from the novella is that you can’t just go around waiting for momentous things to happen to you, for your ‘real’ life to start; you have to recognize that this is life, here and now: in storytelling, in spicy stews, in everyday moments with friends and family.
With thanks to Charco Press for the free copy for review.
Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran
[Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley]
In 1994 Xinran, a Chinese journalist who later moved to London, met a woman whose story captured her imagination. Shu Wen received word that her husband, Kejun, had died just months into their marriage. A doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, he’d been sent into Tibet in the 1960s after its ‘liberation’. With no details or body to confirm his demise, though, Wen refused to believe Kejun was gone, and traveled to Tibet to find him. She stayed there for over 30 years – more than half her life – living with a Tibetan family and adjusting to their culture and rituals as she sought word of her husband. The gender roles surprised her: men did the sewing and women had multiple husbands. It was a land of lamas and temples; “the whole of Tibet was one great monastery,” she felt.
Wen does eventually learn the truth of what happened to her husband (whew!), and after decades of living as a superstitious Buddhist in primitive conditions has to readjust to life in a new China, having completely missed the Cultural Revolution. She clings to words of wisdom from a military official: “Whatever happens, remember one thing: just staying alive is a victory” and “Writing can be a source of strength.” He then gave her a diary that she filled with letters to Kejun over the years.
It’s a pleasant, short book made up of layers of tales: the legends and history lessons Wen hears from Tibetans; what she conveys to Xinran during their two intense days together; and the resulting narrative Xinran spent nearly a decade imagining herself into. Kejun’s fate is worth waiting around to hear about (but if you know what the title refers to you might consider it a spoiler), though this is something of a thin story overall. I’ve seen it referred to as a novel, though I consider it more of a stylized biography.
Did you do any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?
I’m always interested to find out how people who aren’t regular followers catch wind of my blog. The web searches documented in my WordPress statistics are often bizarre, but do point to what have been some of my most enduringly popular posts: reviews of The First Bad Man, The Girl Who Slept with God, and The Essex Serpent; and write-ups of events with Diana Athill and Michel Faber. I also get a fair number of searches for Ann Kidd Taylor, whose two books I’ve featured at different points.
Here are some of the more interesting results from the last six months or so. My favorite search of all may well be “underwhelmed by ferrante”! (Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout.)
October 19: the undiscovered islands malachy tallack, the first bad man, ann kidd taylor wedding
October 21: prose/poetry about autumn
November 2: ann kidd taylor, irmina barbara yelin, the first bad man summary, diana athill on molly keane
November 6: michel faber poems, essex serpent as byatt, book summary of the girl who slept with gid byval brelinski
November 17: book cycle, james lasdun, novel the girl who slept with god
November 25: john bradshaw the lion in the living room, bibliotherapy open courses the school of life, barbara yelin irmina, 2016 best prose poem extracts
December 5: seal morning, paul evans field notes from the edge, at the existentialist café: freedom, being, and apricot cocktails with jean-paul sartre, simone de beauvoir, albert camus, marti, read how many books at once
December 23: midwinter novel melrose, underwhelmed by ferrante
January 6: charlotte bronte handwriting, hundred year old man and john irving
January 12: memorable prose on looking forward, felicity Trotman
January 24: patient memoirs, poirot graphic novel, first bad man review, he came beck why? love poems
January 26: reading discussion essex serpent, elena ferrante my brilliant friend dislike
February 3: what are chimamanda’s novels transkated to films, ann kidd taylor, shannon leone fowler, i read war and peace and liked it
February 15: “how to make a french family” “review”, book that literally changed my life, the essex serpent summary
March 13: my darling detective howard norman, the essex serpent book club questions, the first bad man summary
March 22: the doll’s alphabet, joslin linder genetic disorders
March 31: detor, louisa young michel faber
May 7: the essex serpent plot, rebecca foster writer, book about cats, gauguin the other world dori fabrizio
Yesterday evening’s Wellcome Book Prize announcement was my first time attending a literary prize awards ceremony. Despite my nerves going in, there was quite a relaxed atmosphere (I felt almost overdressed in my H&M dress) and it was no different to any party where one struggles to make small talk – except that here all the talk was of books!
The new high-ceilinged Reading Room at the Wellcome Library (across from London’s Euston station) was a suitably swanky setting, with the unusual collection of health-themed books surrounded by an equally odd set of curios, such as death masks, paintings showing medical conditions, and a columnar red dress designed to resemble a neural tube. There was even a jazz duo playing.
It was especially lovely to meet up with Clare (A Little Blog of Books) and Ruby (My Booking Great Blog) and compare notes on book blogging while nursing a flute of prosecco and some superlative canapés. We also indulged in some subtle celebrity spotting – or, at least, the sort of authors and public figures I consider celebrities: Ned Beauman, Sarah Churchwell, A.C. Grayling, Cathy Rentzenbrink, and Suzanne O’Sullivan, last year’s Wellcome Prize winner. Three of the shortlisted authors were also present.
About 45 minutes into the event, the official proceedings began. Crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of this year’s judging panel, gave introductory remarks about the Prize and the attributes they were looking for when assessing the 140 books in the running this year. She said they were in search of books that went beyond the superficial and revealed more layers upon each rereading – as by now they’ve read the shortlisted books three times.
Each of the judges then came to the podium to explain what they had all admired about a particular shortlisted book before presenting the author or author’s representative (editor, publisher or, in the case of Paul Kalanithi, his younger brother Jeevan, over from America) with flowers. When McDermid returned to the microphone to announce the winner, she started off by speaking of a book that combined two stories, the medical and the personal. Hmm, this might describe at least four or five of the books from the shortlist, I thought. Could it be When Breath Becomes Air, our shadow panel favorite? Or The Tidal Zone, our runner-up?
Within seconds the wait was over and we learned the actual winner was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. There was a pleased roar from the room, but also plenty of blinks and head shakes of surprise, I think. De Kerangal gave a few words of thanks, especially to the U.K. translator and publisher who made this edition of her book possible. This was the first work in translation to win the Wellcome Book Prize, and only the second novel (after Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante in 2011).
Clare and I stuck around for another hour and were unexpectedly asked for book recommendations by a member of the Wellcome legal team who was kind enough to take an interest in us as book bloggers. She confessed that since uni she doesn’t read much anymore, but said that at school she enjoyed Jane Austen and she’s recently read Elena Ferrante’s books. Based on that rather thin history, we suggested she try Zadie Smith, and I also spoke up for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
On the way out we were given terrific bookish swag bags! Mine contained a paperback reissue copy of The Tidal Zone, a Wellcome Prize bookmark and commemorative booklet, and a blank notebook featuring optician’s glass eyes.
I can’t see such London events ever being frequent for me, especially given the cost of travel in from Newbury, but if a similar opportunity arises again I won’t hesitate to take advantage of it, especially if it means putting faces to names from the U.K. blogging community.
Today, March 9th, is World Kidney Day. “The kidneys are like the Rodney Dangerfield of vital organs—they get no popular respect,” Vanessa Grubbs (whose memoir I discuss below) wryly comments. Chances are you rarely have occasion to think about your kidneys. But I’m honoring them with a reading list because several years ago I was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a degenerative condition that runs in my family. My maternal grandmother had it – we’ve never definitively traced it further back than her – and four of her six children have it, too. (If you took a high school genetics class, you might remember that with an autosomal dominant condition offspring have a 50% chance of inheriting the gene for the disease.) A few cousins of my generation also have PKD, and starting with my mom we’ve had a few successful kidney transplants in the family so far.
The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz
As soon as I read Melissa’s review at The Book Binder’s Daughter, I knew I had to get this one. “The Plimsoll line” is a maritime term indicating how low a cargo-laden ship can sit in the water without sinking; here it’s used metaphorically to ask just how much one man can take. Gabriel Ariz is a 52-year-old art professor who lives not far from the city yet surrounded by oak woods. He’s divorced from Ana, who’s pressuring him to sell the house, and their young adult daughter Laura died a few years ago in a car accident. Now this pack-a-day smoker who gets drunk with his brother, traveling photographer Óscar, learns that he has end-stage renal disease and his life will have to change. On indefinite leave from work, he attends a dialysis clinic several times a week and joins the organ transplant list.
At times this was a bit overwritten for my tastes – some paragraphs stretch to several pages, and I’ve had to look up words, including “lentitude” and “logomachy” – but I did love the author’s trick of jumping into different perspectives. On multiple occasions he employs an “anonymous observer,” and in various chapters the point-of-view shifts to a member of the animal kingdom: Polanski the cat, a black kite flying overhead, a mole popping up in the garden, or a beetle winging across the detritus of Gabriel’s untidy household. We also get an extended section from Laura’s journals that reveals a disturbing family secret.
This is not one for the squeamish as it gives an unflinching account of dialysis: “His forearm throbbed, lacerated by needle marks. Sara had taken a while to find the fistula, and now the pain spread under the surgical tape like a jellyfish sting.” But for every passage that makes you cringe there’s a beautiful one that captures things perfectly: “he is living in constant deferment, between parentheses” and “If the succubus of his bad dreams were to say to him, ‘Make a wish,’ he would ask to be able to mold himself to the geological quietude of stones.”
The Plimsoll Line won Spain’s Premio Tiflos de Novela in 2008 and first appeared in English translation in 2015. It is part of a “Trilogy of Illness”; I presume the other volumes are not yet available in English, though I’ve enquired of the translator, Jonathan Dunne, via a Facebook message just in case. Forget Ferrante and Knausgaard; this is the semi-autobiographical series I’ll be awaiting the next installment of with bated breath.
Hundreds of Interlaced Fingers by Vanessa Grubbs
Grubbs is a nephrologist and assistant professor of medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. Well before she made the kidneys her clinical area of expertise, a personal encounter made them special to her. In 2003 she met Robert Phillips when she was an attending trying to get support for her Office of Diversity Affairs; he was a hospital trustee. She only later learned, after they started dating, that due to FSGS his kidneys had failed in his twenties and he’d been on dialysis for years. In 2005 she donated him one of her kidneys. Robert’s health was touch-and-go for a little while there, but he proposed to her soon afterwards. I read about a third of this and then skimmed the rest because I wasn’t all that interested in their separate histories. However, I did like the context Grubbs gives, such as a brief history of dialysis, nephrology case studies, and a great set of FAQs. She also notes that minorities are less likely to get organ transplants, a disparity she is working to rectify.
This memoir grew out of an essay for Health Affairs, “Good for Harvest, Bad for Planting.” Releases June 13th.
The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
(First reviewed in November 2015; here’s a shortened version.) Lying in a hospice bed, 40-year-old Ivo looks back on his life. Even after just four short decades and a modest career at a garden center, he has plenty to regret. Hard partying and drug use exacerbated his diabetes and prompted kidney failure. His lifestyle also led indirectly to his girlfriend, nursing student Mia (the “you” he often addresses directly), leaving him. He’s estranged from his sister and his friends from school days, especially Mal. How did he mess up so badly and cut himself off so completely that he’s now dying alone? And how much can he put right before he goes?
There’s plenty of affecting writing in Hannah’s debut novel. I liked how he captures the routines of institutional life. Nurse Sheila’s A to Z game, encouraging Ivo to think of a memory attached to body parts starting with each letter of the alphabet, provides a hokey but effective structure. Keeping in mind that in British English Z is pronounced ‘zed’, the title doesn’t rhyme, but this is still somewhat sappy. I’d recommend it to fans of Mark Haddon and David Nicholls. I’ll follow Hannah’s career and hope he avoids melodrama and a contrived setup – the two near-pitfalls of this one – in the future.
The Reluctant Donor by Suzanne F. Ruff
A sepia-toned photograph at the centerfold tells a solemn tale: six of these eight members of Ruff’s Irish-Catholic Chicago family died, directly or indirectly, as a result of PKD. I’ve always known there’s a long waiting list for transplant kidneys, but I was surprised to learn that dialysis machines used to be rare; demand far exceeded supply, and the procedure was not covered by Medicare until 1973. Ruff’s aunt, Sister Mike, decided the lives of people with children were more important than her own, so didn’t press for dialysis; when her kidneys failed in her forties, death followed just a few months later.
Things had greatly improved by the time Ruff’s mother needed a transplant. Joan sounds like a feisty, lovable character, with plenty of good advice on being a patient: fight for your rights (the meek ones often end up being carried out feet first), get up and walk as soon after surgery as you possibly can, and appreciate the joy of an entirely ordinary day. Ruff’s parents had her and her sisters tested for PKD when they were teenagers. Having gone to the trouble, they then lied about the results! They said no one had PKD, but in the end two out of three did; only Ruff was spared. This is how she ended up donating a kidney to her younger sister, JoAnn. The more interesting sections of the book are about Ruff’s family history; her internal struggle to convince herself to commit to organ donation makes for pretty repetitive moaning.
In general, the writing isn’t great. Skimming through, I found a page with 16 of my proofreading marks; on most pages it’s more like 2–3. There’s also a tendency to over-write when portraying emotion: “Genetic disease. Those two words made my spine shiver, my ears ring, my throat close, and my heart pound; I became lightheaded and faint. Terror crept into my core and gripped me in its vice [sic].” While I’m not sure I could recommend this to someone who doesn’t have a personal stake in organ donation, for those who are interested in an autobiographical account of genetic disease/transplant surgery, it’s a quick, pleasant read.
Plus two more kidney-themed novels I’m on the look-out for:
- Useful, Debra Oswald, about a man who decides to donate a kidney to a stranger
- The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days, Lisa Yee, a YA comedy in which a girl asks her boyfriend if he’d give her a kidney. Hypothetically, right?
I’m on the fence about:
- Larry’s Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant—and Save His Life, Daniel Asa Rose (I think the subtitle says it all!)
- I, Kidney, Chris Six: a self-published, semi-autobiographical novel