Four July–August releases: Scottish nature writing, the quirky story of a family taxidermy business in Florida, a dual-timeline novel set at an unusual dictionary’s headquarters, and a critical and personal response to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie
This nature writing anthology of essays, poems and visual art drew me because of contributor names like GP Gavin Francis (reviewed: Shapeshifters), Amy Liptrot (the Wainwright Prize-winning memoir The Outrun), singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, and Shetland chronicler Malachy Tallack (reviewed: The Un-Discovered Islands and The Valley at the Centre of the World), not to mention editor Kathleen Jamie. Archaeology and folk music evoke the past, while climate change scenarios inject a sense of a menacing future. Seabirds circle and coastal and island scenery recurs. Entries from Alec Finlay’s “A Place-Aware Dictionary” disguise political points under tongue-in-cheek language, as in a definition of foraging: “Later sometimes referred to as the Brexit Diet.” The (sub)urban could be more evident, and I didn’t need two bouts of red deer sex, but there’s still a nice mix of tones and approaches here.
Six best pieces (out of 24): Chris Powici on wind turbines and red kites at the Braes of Doune; Jacqueline Bain on how reduced mobility allows her to observe wasps closely; Jim Crumley on sea eagle reintroductions and the ancient sky burials that took place at the Tomb of the Eagles; Jen Hadfield on foraging for whelks at the ocean’s edge, in a run-on hybrid narrative; Sally Huband on how persecution of ravens and of women (still not allowed to take part in Up Helly Aa festivities) continues on Shetland; and Liptrot on how wild swimming prepared her for childbirth and helped her to recover a sense of herself separate from her baby. And if I had to pick just one, the Huband – so brave and righteously angry.
“Compromises need to be made. An overlap between the wild and the human has to be negotiated and managed. … So let’s play merry hell with the distinction between what counts as wild and what counts as human, between what’s condemned as a visual obscenity and what’s seen as a marvel of the age. Let’s mess up the boundaries and get a new measure of ourselves as a species.” (Powici)
inspiration to get out walking again: “Don’t wait / thinking you’ve seen it all already … don’t wait thinking you need better boots / or a waterproof that’ll keep out the rain. / It won’t. Don’t wait.” (“Water of Ae” by Em Strang)
My thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
“We couldn’t ever leave roadkill behind. Something inside us always made us stop to pick up dead things.”
After her father’s suicide, Jessa-Lynn Morton takes over the family taxidermy business in central Florida. Despite her excessive drinking and grief over both her father and her best friend and long-time on-and-off girlfriend (also, inconveniently, her brother’s wife) Brynn, who recently took off, she’s just about holding it together. That is, until 1) her mother takes to composing interspecies orgies and S&M scenes in the shop window and 2) her niece and nephew, Lolee and Bastien, start bringing in specimens for taxidermy that they haven’t exactly obtained legally. Gallery owner Lucinda Rex takes an interest in her mother’s ‘art’ and is soon a new romantic interest for Jessa. But the entire family is going to have to face its issues before her professional and love life can be restored.
This debut novel’s title, cover and premise were utterly irresistible to me, and though I loved the humid Florida setting, it was all a bit too much. At 200 pages this could have been a razor-sharp new favorite, but instead there was a lot of sag in its 350+ pages. Alternating chapters based around mounting particular animals give glimpses into the family’s past but mostly have Jessa mooning over Brynn. Her emotional journey starts to feel belabored; it’s as if an editor tried to rein in Arnett’s campy glee at the dysfunctional family’s breakdown and made her add in some amateur psychoanalysis, and for me this diluted the quirky joy.
Skinning and sex scenes are equally explicit here. This never bothered me, but it should go without saying that it is not a book for the squeamish. It’s when sex and taxidermy mix that things get a little icky, as in her mother’s X-rated tableaux and a line like “Often I found myself comparing the limber body of a deer with the long line of [Lucinda’s] legs or the strong cord of her neck.” Believe it or not, this is not the first queer taxidermy novel I’ve read. The other one, English Animals by Laura Kaye, was better. I’d wanted another Swamplandia! but got something closer to Black Light instead.
My thanks to Corsair for the free copy for review.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
Mallory is five years into an internship at Swansby House, the London headquarters of Swansby’s dictionary. The dictionary is known for being unfinished – too many of its lexicographers left for WWI and never returned – and for having made-up words. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, the butt of jokes among his colleagues, started composing mountweazels (fake entries) and inserting them into the dictionary. In the contemporary story line, Mallory’s job is to remove the mountweazels as the dictionary is prepared for digitization. But her attention is distracted by anonymous bomb threats and by lingering shame about her sexuality – Mallory thinks she’s “out enough,” but her girlfriend Pip begs to differ.
Chapters are headed with vocabulary words running from A to Z, and alternate between Mallory’s first-person narration and a third-person account of Winceworth’s misadventures at the turn of the twentieth century. In any book with this kind of structure I seem to prefer the contemporary strand and itch to get back to it, though there is a quite astounding scene in which Winceworth intervenes to help a choking pelican. Events at Swansby House resonate and mirror each other across the dozen decades, with both main characters emerging with a new sense of purpose after an epiphany that life is about more than work. Though silly in places, this has a winning love of words and characters you’ll care about.
A favorite made-up word: “Mammonsomniate: to dream that money might make anything possible.”
Readalikes: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony and Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
My thanks to William Heinemann for the proof copy for review.
Looking Was Not Enough: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex by Irena Yamboliev
When I worked in a university library and read Middlesex during quiet evenings on the circulation desk in 2009, a colleague asked me, “Is that about the London borough?” My reply: “Er, no, it’s about a hermaphrodite.” That’s an off-putting, clinical sort of word, but it does appear in the first paragraph of this family saga with a difference, after the mythological intensity and medical necessity implied by the killer opening line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Cal, born Calliope but now living as a man and working in the Foreign Service, recounts three generations of family history, from Greece to Detroit to Berlin. “Because … their parents were dead and their village destroyed, because no one in Smyrna knew who they were,” brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona became lovers and got married on the boat over to America. They were his grandparents. Add to that his parents’ first-cousin marriage and you see how inbreeding played genetic havoc and made way for Callie/Cal.
I intended to reread Middlesex, which I consider one of my all-time favorite books, but only made it through 60 pages on this occasion. Still, Yamboliev, a Bulgarian-American who teaches at Stanford, reminded me of everything I love about it: the medical theme, the exploration of selfhood, the playful recreation of the past. Drawing parallels with her own family’s move to America, she ponders the disconnection from the home country and the creation of a new life story. “To tell ourselves where we come from—to narrate—is to find a pattern retroactively.” She also looks at literary precursors like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Herculine Barbin’s memoir, and Balzac’s and Barthes’s writings on a castrato. “Does transformation make the self discontinuous?” is one of her central questions, and she likens Cal’s situation to that of trans men who have to train themselves to speak, dress and act in a convincingly masculine way.
This is part of Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series; all its monographs do a wonderful job of blending literary criticism, enthusiastic appreciation, and autobiographical reflection as life dovetails with (re)reading. I’ve previously reviewed the Fiction Advocate books on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post, and the ones on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in this one.
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It’s my third time participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). The challenge starts with Stasiland (2003) by Anna Funder, which I also happened to read recently. While working part-time for an overseas television service in what was once West Berlin, Funder started gathering stories of how ordinary people were put under surveillance and psychologically terrorized by the Stasi, the East German secret police. She molds her travels and her interviewees’ testimonies into riveting stories – though this won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004, it’s as character-driven as any novel.
#1 My interest in Stasiland was piqued by reading Sophie Hardach’s Costa Prize-shortlisted novel Confession with Blue Horses (2019). When Ella’s parents, East German art historians under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect during a ‘vacation’ to Hungary in 1987, their three children were taken from them and only two were returned. Ella is determined to find her brother, whom they’ve had no word of since, via a correspondence with the Stasi archive. It’s an emotionally involving story of one ordinary family’s losses and reconstruction.
#2 Blue Horses (2014) is one of Mary Oliver’s lesser poetry collections. I found it to be a desperately earnest and somewhat overbaked set of nature observations and pat spiritual realizations. There are a few poems worth reading (e.g., “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond” and Part 3 of “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and lines here and there fit for saving, but overall this is so weak that I’d direct readers to Oliver’s landmark 1980s work instead.
#3 Oliver’s poetry, especially “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” gets quoted everywhere. The latter’s most famous lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” appears in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, my book of 2020 so far. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a completely natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her late father, also a doctor, and his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate yet practical book, this aims to get people talking about end-of-life issues.
#4 I have meant to read Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) since before she won the Nobel Prize. I was sent a free paperback copy for a Nudge review, but as the site already had a review of the book up, I let it slip and never followed through. More than once I’ve put this short story collection onto a reading stack, but I have never quite gotten past the first page or two. At some point this must be rectified.
#5 Alice Munro is one of the authors featured in Writers & Co. by Eleanor Wachtel (1993), a terrific collection of interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
#6 My first-ever author Q&A, for Bookkaholic in 2013, was related to The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver. (Alas that the site is now defunct, so the interview only exists as a file on my computer.) In an astonishing historical sweep, from Massachusetts’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent‒child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Jane Smiley’s “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy is a saga prioritizing the experiences of the Langdons, an Iowa farming family, over the century beginning in 1920. In chronological chapters, one per year from 1920 to the near future of 2019, Smiley follows an ordinary couple, their six children and several generations of their descendants as they navigate America’s social changes and re-evaluate their principles during decades of upheaval.
Here’s an excerpt from my Shiny New Books review in early 2015: “Farming, unpredictable and frequently heartbreaking, is an appropriate framework for an all-American story. Aspects of the Great American Novel are certainly on display: immigrant roots, coming-of-age trajectories for individuals and the nation, and American dream scenarios of reinvention. Within the confines of its third-person omniscient point-of-view, the novel shifts between the perspectives of each main character, especially the children. Smiley avoids a gimmicky One Day effect by varying the time of year so most chapters highlight different events, birthdays or holidays. Droughts, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and McCarthyism all feature, while the start of the Cold War – including paranoia over the Russians getting the bomb – sets up the second volume.”
Some months ago it occurred to me that I never followed up with the Langdons. Although I don’t generally read sequels or series, I nonetheless made it a priority to find the other two volumes of the trilogy from the library.
The second book covers 1953 to 1986. The family loses one member to Vietnam, one to cancer, and one to the easiest, simplest death you could imagine. There’s a shotgun wedding, a divorce, and several affairs. In short, it feels like a real family, like your family. Events seem arbitrary at the time but later take on the cast of inevitability. Historical landmarks are there as background information, not as clichéd points of action (a good example is the JFK assassination). The Vietnam War threads through the middle section, but isn’t overpowering. The connections with history are pretty subtle here. One of my favorites is when Janet, at a Vietnam protest march, suddenly realizes she’s behind Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Spock. Her later involvement with the Peoples Temple grew tiresome for me, but I appreciated the ironic eye on the future: in 1980, “Well, I guess, they invaded Afghanistan…wherever that is!”
Iowa was still my preferred setting, an ideal site for pondering time’s workings and how money comes and goes: Joe “knew enough at his age to know that dollars were like drops of mist – they fluttered around you and then dissipated.” I also like Andy’s therapy sessions, frequently featured in the first half. There’s even a gentle mystery in this book: a boy who doesn’t seem to be related to the family keeps showing up, but by the end we figure out who he is.
People may rise and fall in importance, just as they do in real life, but everyone has a perspective. That’s part of Smiley’s message here, I think. Early on she observes that Rosanna “hadn’t thought of Roland Frederick as having a point of view.” Recognizing other people as valid subjects, overcoming solipsism, is really what literature is all about.
Although I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t like the grandchildren generation all that much; Richie and Michael are especially unpleasant, and I have a feeling they will be major players in Golden Age. Still, I feel invested in and close to this family, so I’m going to see it through to the end.
Joe’s dystopian vision: “But he could see it, looking south – he could see all the layers lift off – the roof of the house, the second floor, the first floor. He could see the children and Jesse and Jenny and Lois and Minnie being lifted out on a fountain of debt and scattered to the winds; then he could see the corn and beans scoured away, and the topsoil, once twelve inches thick, now six inches thick, and below that, the silty clay loam, more gray than black, then the subsoil, brownish clay all the way down, down, down to the yellow layer, mostly, again, clay, all of it exposed, all of it flying into the atmosphere like money, burning up in the hot sunshine, disappearing.”
Alas, the final installment was my least favorite. There are a few reasons for this. One is simply that I didn’t like the third- and fourth-generation characters as much. Another is that, with such a large family tree, you get more lists of names and catch-up sessions. The intrusion of history is also more overt. I noted this in the 2011 chapter, especially, which mentions the Japanese earthquake, Utøya and the Occupy movement. One character dies on 9/11; another gets a flesh-eating bacteria. One is struck by lightning; another dies in a hit and run. Not only are several of the deaths unrealistic, but, true to the winding-down spirit, there are simply a lot of them.
As people disperse and the second generation starts to die off, the bonds between the family members weaken. The Iowa farm diminishes in real-life and symbolic importance compared to the action on the coasts: California, New York and Washington, where Richie is a congressman. I might actually have preferred if Smiley had imagined an alternative history for the 2000s and 2010s. (Of course, that would have broken the mold she made for herself.) For me, it all felt too close. I had a sense of her picking easy targets: “I would like to thank the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize,” she writes in her acknowledgments. There’s also too much horse material – a frequent indulgence for Smiley.
The last five or so chapters were speculative at the time Smiley was writing, and some of her predictions already seem a little silly, like violent protests against a Harper government in Vancouver in 2016. However, her environmental worries are right on, and her words about the 2012 presidential election seem prescient in relation to this year’s race: a character advises his family to vote Democrat “as a protest against the Republican Party for offering a roster of candidates that went from bad to worse to worst ever.”
Ultimately, my favorite overall character was Andy, who reinvented herself as a young woman and does so again as a widow, turning into a computer and investment whiz. Frank was an early favorite in Some Luck, where he reminded me a lot of Mad Men’s Don Draper, but I grew less enamored with him over the years. Henry was perhaps my second favorite in the previous two books, but he rather fades into the background in the final book.
My advice to anyone wondering whether they should read this trilogy would be to start with Some Luck and, if you really like it, proceed to Early Warning. Golden Age is largely unnecessary and can be reserved for die-hard Smiley fans or series completists.
Further reading: Literary Hub article, “Why Wasn’t Great American Novelist Jane Smiley on the Cover of a Magazine?”