During the coronavirus pandemic, we have had to take small pleasures where we can. One of the highlights of lockdown for me has been the chance to participate in literary events like book-themed concerts, prize shortlist announcements, book club discussions, live literary award ceremonies and book festivals that time, distance and cost might otherwise have precluded.
In May I attended several digital Hay Festival events, and this September to early October I’ve been delighted to journey back to Wigtown, Scotland – even if only virtually.
The Bookshop Band
The Bookshop Band have been a constant for me this year. After watching their 21 Friday evening lockdown shows on Facebook, as well as a couple of one-off performances for other festivals, I have spent so much time with them in their living room that they feel more like family than a favorite band. Add to that four of the daily breakfast chat shows from the Wigtown Book Festival and I’ve seen them play over 25 times this year already!
(The still below shows them with, clockwise from bottom left, guests Emma Hooper, Stephen Rutt and Jason Webster.)
Ben and Beth’s conversations with featured authors and local movers and shakers, punctuated by one song per guest, were pleasant to have on in the background while working. The songs they performed were, ideally, written for those authors’ books, but other times just what seemed most relevant; at times this was a stretch! I especially liked seeing Donal Ryan, about whose The Spinning Heart they’ve recently written a terrific song; Kate Mosse, who has been unable to write during lockdown so (re)read 200 books instead, including all of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh et al.; and Ned Beauman, who is nearing the deadline for his next novel, a near-future story of two scientists looking for traces of the venomous lumpsucker (a made-up fish) in the Baltic Sea. Closer to science fiction than his previous work, it’s a funny take on extinctions, he said. I’ve read all of his published work, so I’m looking forward to this one.
The opening event of the Festival was an in-person chat between Lee Randall and Shaun Bythell in Wigtown, rather than the split-screen virtual meet-ups that made up the rest of my viewing. Bythell, owner of The Book Shop, has become Wigtown’s literary celebrity through The Diary of a Bookseller and its sequel. In early November he has a new book coming out, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops. I’m halfway through it and it has more substance than its stocking-stuffer dimensions would imply. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names, as if he’s naming species.
The Book Shop closed for 116 days during COVID-19: the only time in more than 40 years that it has been closed for longer than just over the Christmas holidays. He said that it has been so nice to see customers again; they’ve been a ray of sunshine for him, something the curmudgeon would never usually say! Business has been booming since his reopening, with Agatha Christie his best seller – it’s not just Mosse who’s turning to cozy mysteries. He’s also been touched by the kindness of strangers, such as one from Monaco who sent him £300, having read an article by Margaret Atwood about how hard it is for small businesses just now and hoping it would help the shop survive until they could get there in person.
(Below: Bythell on his 50th birthday, with Captain the cat.)
Randall and Bythell discussed a few of the types of customers he regularly encounters. One is the autodidact, who knows more than you and intends for you to know it. This is not the same, though, as the expert who actually helps you by sharing their knowledge (of a rare cover version on an ordinary-looking crime paperback, for instance). There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant.
Appearing from Dublin, Mark O’Connell was interviewed by Scottish writer and critic Stuart Kelly about his latest book, Notes from an Apocalypse (my review). He noted that, while all authors hope their books are timely, perhaps he overshot with this one! The book opens with climate change as the most immediate threat, yet now he feels that “has receded as the locus of anxiety.” O’Connell described the “flattened” experience of being alive at the moment and contrasted it with the existential awfulness of his research travels. For instance, he read a passage from the book about being at an airport Yo Sushi! chain and having a vision of horror at the rampant consumerism its conveyor belt seemed to represent.
Kelly characterized O’Connell’s personal, self-conscious approach to the end of the world as “brave,” while O’Connell said, “in terms of mental health, I should have chosen any other topic!” Having children creates both vulnerability and possibility, he contended, and “it doesn’t do you any good as a parent to indulge in those predilections [towards extreme pessimism].” They discussed preppers’ white male privilege, New Zealand and Mars as havens, and Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough as saints of the climate crisis.
O’Connell pinpointed Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as the work he spends more time on in his book than any other; none of your classic nihilist literature here, and he deliberately avoided bringing up biblical references in his secular approach. In terms of the author he’s reached for most over the last few years, and especially during lockdown, it’s got to be Annie Dillard. Speaking of the human species, he opined, “it should not be unimaginable that we should cease to exist at some point.”
This talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading the book (vice versa would probably be true, too – I got the gist of Roman Krznaric’s recent thinking from his Hay Festival talk and so haven’t been engaging with his book as much as I’d like), but it was nice to see O’Connell ‘in person’ since he couldn’t make it to the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize ceremony.
Glasgow-born Douglas Stuart is a fashion designer in New York City. Again the interviewer was Lee Randall, an American journalist based in Edinburgh – she joked that she and Stuart have swapped places. Stuart said he started writing his Booker-shortlisted novel, Shuggie Bain, 12 years ago, and kept it private for much of that time. Although he and Randall seemed keen to downplay how autobiographical the work is, like his title character, Stuart grew up in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic single mother. As a gay boy, he felt he didn’t have a voice in Thatcher’s Britain. He knew many strong women who were looked down on for being poor.
It’s impossible to write an apolitical book about poverty (or a Glasgow book without dialect), Stuart acknowledged, yet he insisted that the novel is primarily “a portrait of two souls moving through the world,” a love story about Shuggie and his mother, Agnes. The author read a passage from the start of Chapter 2, when readers first meet Agnes, the heart of the book. Randall asked about sex as currency and postulated that all Agnes – or any of these characters; or any of us, really – wants is someone whose face lights up when they see you.
The name “Shuggie” was borrowed from a small-town criminal in his housing scheme; it struck him as ironic that a thug had such a sweet nickname. Stuart said that writing the book was healing for him. He thinks that men who drink and can’t escape poverty are often seen as loveable rogues, while women are condemned for how they fail their children. Through Agnes, he wanted to add some nuance to that double standard.
The draft of Shuggie Bain was 900 pages, single-spaced, but his editor helped him cut it while simultaneously drawing out the important backstories of Agnes and some other characters. He had almost finished his second novel by the time Shuggie was published, so he hopes it will be with readers soon.
[I have reluctantly DNFed Shuggie Bain at p. 100, but I’ll keep my proof copy on the shelf in case one day I feel like trying it again – especially if, as seems likely, it wins the Booker Prize.]
I don’t often get a chance to read the wonderful-sounding Australian books I see on prize shortlists or on Kate’s blog, so I was delighted when Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was published in the UK last year. It may just be my mind making easy associations, but Josephine Wilson’s second novel indeed reminded me of other Australian fiction I’ve enjoyed, including The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, and The Singing Ship by Rebecca Winterer. I can’t quite put my finger on what these novels have in common despite their disparate time settings. A hot and forbidding landscape? An enduring sense of pioneer spirit, of survival against the odds? All four, to an extent, pit an explorer’s impetus against family trauma and/or racial difference.
The antihero of Extinctions is widower Frederick Lothian, who at age 69 is a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s January 2006, the middle of a blistering Australian summer, and amid his usual morbid activities of reading the newspaper obituaries and watching his elderly co-residents fall over outside his air-conditioned unit, he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. A retired engineer, he’s an expert on concrete construction as well as a noted collector of modernist furniture. But he’s been much less successful in his personal life. His son is in a care home after a devastating accident, and his adopted daughter Caroline, who is part Aborigine, blames and avoids Fred. A run-in with a nosy neighbor, Jan, forces him to face the world – and his past – again.
Meanwhile, Caroline is traveling in the UK to secure specimens for a museum exhibit on extinct species, and the idea of feeling utterly lonesome, like the last of one’s kind, recurs: Frederick sits stubbornly on his own at St Sylvan’s, pondering the inevitability of death; Caroline and Jan, both adopted, don’t have the comfort of a family lineage; and the museum specimens whose photographs are dotted through the novel (including the last passenger pigeon, Martha, which also – not coincidentally, I’m sure – was Fred’s wife’s name) represent the end of the line.
I loved pretty much everything about this book: the thematic connections, the gentle sense of humor (especially during Fred and Jan’s expensive restaurant dégustation), the chance for a curmudgeonly protagonist to redeem himself, and the spot-on writing. Highly recommended.
A favorite passage:
“Like many educated people, Frederick had his opinions, most of which were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths, but in reality politics and modern history were his weak points – along with poetry. Where poetry and politics were concerned he feared a lack of foundation, which left him vulnerable to challenge. Deep down he knew that opinion – like concrete – was most resilient when well founded and reinforced.”
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.
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 rating and a short taster 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.)
Girl at War by Sara Nović [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The careful structure is what keeps it from becoming just another ordinary, chronological war story. The recreation of a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is stunning. In fact, I can barely think of a negative thing to say about this concise novel. It strikes a perfect balance between past and present, tragic and hopeful.
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: With settings ranging from a Coney Island theater to an opium den and a mental asylum, this is a gritty look at late-nineteenth-century outsiders. Circus and sideshow themes have been very popular in fiction in recent years, and this is a great example of a novel that uses those elements as background but goes beyond the incidentals of the carnival lifestyle to examine sexuality and societal outcasts. A very atmospheric and accomplished debut novel.
Secrets of the Pomegranate by Barbara Lamplugh (& interview): In the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the secrets harbored by two English sisters, one of them settled in Granada, will come out into the open and affect the entire family. Lamplugh does a great job of unveiling a little at a time – but still maintaining tension until the surprise of the final revelation. The novel shifts easily between the central narrative and Deb’s diary entries, and between Alice’s and Mark’s perspectives. A strong debut novel.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass: An unusual mixture of historical, contemporary and dystopian short stories. A number of the first-person narratives feel like vague interior monologues, though there are some universal sentiments. When Greengrass picks one genre (but which will it be?) and sticks with it for the length of a whole book, she should have the time and space for the deep characterizations I thought were missing here. (But you can’t beat this book’s title, can you?)
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: This was one of the key books of my American childhood. All these years later, phrases were still familiar to me, such as Jamie’s frequent exclamation of “Oh, boloney!” I clearly remembered the delicious overall sense of adventure and secrecy. Konigsburg captures school group chatter and brother/sister banter perfectly. The museum and archive settings are a great way to get children interested in art, history and library research. This was the original Night at the Museum before that franchise was ever dreamed up.
The Hunt for the Golden Mole by Richard Girling: From Victorian animal collecting to present-day poaching, Girling surveys the contradictory human instincts toward exploitation and preservation of mammals. The book is rather scattered, with too little about the actual quest for the mole, but the message about species extinction is powerful. (The Somali golden mole has never been seen in the wild, except as a few bones in an owl pellet found by an Italian zoologist in 1964. For some reason, it captured Girling’s imagination, becoming a symbol of rarity and fragility.)
Road Ends by Mary Lawson: Contrasting rural Canada and London in the 1960s, Lawson’s third novel is a powerful story about how people deal with a way of life ending. She creates a perfect balance between her two plot strands, and the evocation of both locations is flawless, perhaps because they have autobiographical worth for her – she grew up on a farm in Ontario but moved to England in 1968. One remarkable thing about the novel is how she traces every decision back to a traumatic event in a character’s past.
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall: Rachel Caine has run Idaho’s Chief Joseph wolf preserve for nearly a decade, but her roots are in England’s Lake District. Her two worlds unexpectedly collide when an earl asks for her help reintroducing wolves near the Scottish border. Alongside the story of the wolves’ release runs Rachel’s decision to become a mother. The twin plot strands – one environmental and the other personal – ask what can be salvaged from the past.
Italian Ways by Tim Parks: Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in northern Italy for over 30 years. To start with he saw his train travel as an everyday source of woes about ticket queues, late running, officious staff, and so on, but as years passed he decided to interrogate Italy’s rail system as a metaphor for the country itself. He structures this book around seven train journeys. It’s better suited to train spotters than to armchair travelers: there is quite a lot about train schedules and not enough about the countryside itself.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee: A thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvelously detailed biography from Lee. Fitzgerald is, like Diana Athill, a reassuring examples of an author who did not find success until well into middle age. Although she always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her work wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. The approach is largely chronological, though Lee pauses at key moments to investigate the biographical origins of each of Fitzgerald’s books.
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Mazie Phillips-Gordon, a real ticket-taker at The Venice movie theatre, barely gets a footnote in history. Here we see all sides of this bold, brassy broad through Attenberg’s fragmented, epistolary narrative. The novel intersperses Mazie’s fictional diary entries (1907 to 1939) with excerpts from her unpublished autobiography and interviews with people who knew her. This is historical fiction – but not as we’re accustomed to it. Attenberg shows how fragile and incomplete the documentary record can be. A hard-nosed heroine with a heart of gold, Mazie will leave her mark on you.
A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson: As Goulson did in his book about bees, A Sting in the Tale, he treats readers like friends he is taking on a gentle tour to have everyday encounters with nature. The low-key, humorous anecdotes are reminiscent of the writings of Gerald Durrell, but – like Durrell – Goulson has a serious environmental agenda. Some of the most amusing chapters are about the sexual habits of insects and plants. This is less focused than his previous book, though, and repeats some of the material. The main draw, as always, is Goulson’s infectious enthusiasm and excellent explanations of science.
We Love This Book
War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite: In this postmodern satire, two Seattle hipsters must face reality when one of them leaves to fight in the Iraq War. From now on they keep in touch by updating their pretentious Wikipedia article. While Hal applies literary criticism to Star Wars and tries to make amends to his ex-girlfriend, Mickey is in life-and-death situations, looking for car bombs and overseeing local elections. Robinson and Kovite (an Iraq War veteran) alternate their settings in a fairly seamless whole.
The Edible Atlas by Mina Holland: Food lovers and armchair travelers alike will savor this tour through the world’s regional cuisines and trademark dishes. In her first book, the editor of the Guardian’s Cook supplement introduces 39 cuisines with larder lists, a rundown of crucial flavors, and one to four recipes. Maps show which spices and chilies are used in different areas, while sidebars present key ingredients. The book strives for a balance of common imports and unknown dishes, prioritizing authenticity and reproducibility at home.
Hollow Heart by Viola di Grado: Twenty-five-year-old Dorotea Giglio slit her wrists in the bathtub in July 2011 and expired in “a grim mojito of mint bubble bath and blood.” Over the next four years she chronicles her physical decomposition as well as her spirit’s enduring search for love. In alternately clinical and whimsical language, with fresh metaphors that have survived translation from Italian admirably, di Grado’s second novel examines the secret sadness passed down through families.
Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story by Nancy Sprowell Geise: This eye-opening account of a Polish Jew’s life before, during, and after Auschwitz deposits readers right into concentration camp horrors. Instead of presenting this as a third-person biography, Geise writes as Rubinstein, using extensive interviews and documentary research to recreate his perspective. While the story is necessarily a bit less dramatic after the chapters on the Holocaust, the fact that Rubinstein survived and later became a successful shoe designer in New York is inspiring.
The Contaminants by Devin K. Smyth: Two teens aboard a spacecraft hold out hope for new life on post-apocalyptic Earth in this believable YA science fiction novel. Composed of two solid first-person narratives and based around two father-child relationships, this is a novel that prizes emotions as much as it does technology. The novel is on the thin side; it could have done with another subplot or two to add some complexity. However, the subtle eugenics theme will give teen readers plenty to think about while they follow the fast-paced story.
The Loneliness Cure by Kory Floyd: A professor of communication tackles the loneliness epidemic with stories and science. Floyd explains the problems associated with chronic affection deprivation and suggests practical strategies for getting more of the human contact we naturally crave. Two-thirds of the text goes to preliminaries, but the subtitle’s six strategies are worth waiting for. Like the best self-help books, this convinces readers that “it pays to reach out for help when you need it” and gives the confidence and tactics to do so.
In this article I give a more in-depth preview of Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, her fictionalized biography of Beryl Markham.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
Insomnia by Linda Pastan: Excellent free verse poems infused with images of weather, heavenly bodies, the night sky, art history, and travels. No rhymes to speak of, but plenty of alliteration and repetition – like in “Necklace,” where nearly every line ends with “pearl” or “pearls.” Historical and mythological references are frequent and highbrow. Especially in Part 3, the main theme is facing old age and illness. Linda Pastan has been writing poetry for nearly half a century; I’ll be sure to seek out more of her collections. Releases October 26th.
The Kindness by Polly Samson: This very subtle novel reminds me of works by Tessa Hadley and Lucy Caldwell. It takes one seemingly perfect couple – Julia and Julian – and parses out what went wrong between them and the aftermath. The book is so elegantly structured; characters drift in and out of flashbacks with none of the customary warnings. Instead Samson leaves it to readers to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of how they met and raised their daughter, Mira, and then how everything fell apart.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressive debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. She juggles her storylines and moves through decades with ease. Less mawkish than One Day; less gimmicky than Life After Life – though there are shades of both. The message seems to be: there is no one perfect person, no one perfect story. Unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (My full review will appear in the July 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors by Darrin Nordahl: Nordahl travels through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina in search of truly indigenous local ingredients. He highlights ramsons, pawpaw, elk (leaner and richer than beef), squirrel, hickory nuts and black walnuts, sumac, spicebush berry, sassafras, and persimmons. There are a few recipes and photographs in each chapter, although this is more of a narrative than a cookbook. I loved how he brought it all together with an imagined Appalachian Thanksgiving feast.
Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City by Elizabeth Minchilli: Minchilli’s parents moved the family from America to Rome when she was 12. Over the years she kept going back to Italy: to Florence as a graduate student, and then to stay when she married Domenico. Here, through recipes and personal stories, she shares her enthusiasm for Italian food and for Rome in particular. She finishes each chapter with a list of favorite eateries, so this is a practical guide anyone would benefit from taking along on a trip to Rome.
Some Churches by Tasha Cotter: I loved the first two poems but felt a number of the rest were lacking in artistry. Almost all are written in complete sentences, some in paragraph blocks, and alliteration isn’t always enough to differentiate them from prose. Favorite lines (from “Blood Orange”): “People think that either the red or the orange should go, because to blend the two / alienates some readers. / … I, too, am having an identity crisis, / just like the blood orange. Now that we’ve peeled back / the artifice, you’re inviting me in anyway”.
South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby: This tour through Southern literature is a great introduction for someone whose familiarity with Southern authors is minimal. Starting off in her home state of Mississippi, Eby travels through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and back to Mississippi in a roughly circular road trip. My favorite chapter was on Flannery O’Connor, but I was also interested to learn about Harry Crews, who I’d never heard of before – it certainly sounds like he was a character. Releases September 8th.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: I could relate to much of Riley’s story. She was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but now even setting foot in a church made her feel nauseous. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” Aged 29, Riley had the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before 30. She writes in a chatty, girlfriend-to-girlfriend style, as if you’ve joined her book club for a glass of pinot grigio.