These days, I watch no television. At all. I haven’t owned a set in over eight years. But as a kid, teen and young adult, I loved TV. I devoured cartoons and reruns every day after school (Pinky and the Brain, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, etc.); I was a devoted watcher of the TGIF line-up, and petitioned my parents to let me stay up late to watch Murphy Brown. We subscribed to the TV Guide magazine, and each September I would eagerly read through the pilot descriptions with a highlighter, planning which new shows I was going to try. It’s how I found ones like Alias, Felicity, Scrubs and 24 that I followed religiously. Starting in my freshman year of college, I was a mega-fan of American Idol for its first 12 seasons. And so on. Versus now I know nothing about what’s on telly and all the Netflix and box set hits have passed me by.
Ahem. On to the point.
Freaks and Geeks was my favourite show in high school (it aired in 1999–2000, when I was a junior) and the first DVD series I ever owned – a gift from my sister’s boyfriend, who became her first husband. It’s now considered a cult classic, but I can smugly say that I recognized its brilliance from the start. So did critics, but viewers? Not so much, or at least not enough; it was cancelled after just one season. I’ve vaguely followed the main actors’ careers since then, and though I normally don’t read celebrity autobiographies I’ve picked up two by former cast members in the last year. Both:
Yearbook by Seth Rogen (2021)
I have seen a few of Rogen’s (generally really dumb) movies. The fun thing about this autobiographical essay collection is that you can hear his deadpan voice in your head on every line. That there are three F-words within the first three paragraphs of the book tells you what to expect; if you have a problem with a potty mouth, you probably won’t get very far.
Rogen grew up Jewish in Vancouver in the 1980s and did his first stand-up performance at a lesbian bar at age 13. During his teens he developed an ardent fondness for drugs (mostly pot, but also mushrooms, pills or whatever was going), and a lot of these stories recreate the ridiculous escapades he and his friends went on in search of drugs or while high. My favourite single essay was about a trip to Amsterdam. He also writes about weird encounters with celebrities like George Lucas and Steve Wozniak. A disproportionately long section is devoted to the making of the North Korea farce The Interview, which I haven’t seen.
Individually, these are all pretty entertaining pieces. But by the end I felt that Rogen had told some funny stories with great dialogue but not actually given readers any insight into his own character; it’s all so much posturing. (Also, I wanted more of the how he got from A to B; like, how does a kid in Canada get cast in a new U.S. TV series?) True, I knew not to expect a sensitive baring of the soul, but when I read a memoir I like to feel I’ve been let in. Instead, the seasoned comedian through and through, Rogen keeps us laughing but at arm’s length.
This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps (2018)
I hadn’t kept up with Philipps’s acting, but knew from her Instagram account that she’d gathered a cult following that she spun into modelling and paid promotions, and then a short-lived talk show hosting gig. Although she keeps up a flippant, sarcastic façade for much of the book, there is welcome introspection as she thinks about how women get treated differently in Hollywood. I also got what I wanted from the Rogen but didn’t get: insight into the how of her career, and behind-the-scenes gossip about F&G.
Philipps grew up first in the Chicago outskirts and then mostly in Arizona. She was a headstrong child and her struggle with anxiety started early. When she lost her virginity at age 14, it was actually rape, though she didn’t realize it at the time. At 15, she got pregnant and had an abortion. She developed a habit of seeking validation from men, even if it meant stringing along and cheating on nice guys.
I enjoyed reading about her middle and high school years because she’s just a few years older than me, so the cultural references were familiar (each chapter is named after a different pop song) and I could imagine the scenes – like one at a junior high dance where she got trapped in a mosh pit and dislocated her knee, the first of three times that specific injury happens in the book – taking place in my own middle school auditorium and locker hallway.
She never quite made it to the performing arts summer camp she was supposed to attend in upstate New York, but did act in school productions and got an agent and headshots, so that when Mattel came to Scottsdale looking for actresses to play Barbie dolls in her junior year, she was perfectly placed to be cast as a live-action Cher from Clueless. She enrolled in college in Los Angeles (at LMU) but focused more on acting than on classes. After F&G, Dawson’s Creek was her biggest role. It involved moving to Wilmington, North Carolina and introduced her to her best friend, Michelle Williams, but she never felt she fit with the rest of the cast; her impression is that it was very much a star vehicle for Katie Holmes.
Other projects that get a lot of discussion here are the Will Ferrell ice-skating movie Blades of Glory, which was her joint idea with her high school boyfriend Craig, and had a script written with him and his brother Jeff – there was big drama when they tried to take away her writing credit; and Cougar Town (with Courteney Cox), for which she won the inaugural Television Critics’ Choice Award. She auditioned a lot, including for TV pilots each year, but roles were few and far between, and she got rejected based on her size (when carrying baby weight after her daughters’ births, or once being cast as “the overweight friend”).
Anyway, I was here for the dish on Freaks and Geeks, and it’s juicy, especially about James Franco, who was her character Kim Kelly’s love interest on the show. Kim and Daniel had an on-again, off-again relationship, and the tension between them on camera reflected real life.
“Franco had come back from our few months off and was clearly set on being a VERY SERIOUS ACTOR … [he] had decided that the only way to be taken seriously was to be a fucking prick. Once we started shooting the series, he was not cool to me, at all. Everything was about him, always. His character’s motivation, his choices, his props, his hair, his wardrobe. Basically, he fucking bullied me. Which is what happens a lot on sets. Most of the time, the men who do this get away with it, and most of the time they’re rewarded.”
At one point, he pushed her over on the set; the directors slapped him on the wrist and made him apologize, but she knew nothing was going to come of it. Still, it was her big break:
what we were doing was totally different from the unrealistic teen shows every other network was putting out.
I didn’t know it then, but getting the call about was the first of many you-got-it calls I would get over the course of my career.
when [her daughter] Birdie turns thirteen, I’m going to watch the entire series with her.
And as a P.S., “Seth Rogen was cast as a guest star on [Dawson’s Creek] and he came out and did an episode with me, which was fun. He and Judd had brought me back to L.A. to do two episodes of Undeclared” & she was cast on one season of ER with Linda Cardellini.
The reason I don’t generally read celebrity autobiographies is that the writing simply isn’t strong enough. While Philipps conveys her voice and personality through her style (cursing, capital letters, cynical jokes), some of the storytelling is thin. I mean, there’s not really a chapter’s worth of material in an anecdote about her wandering off when she was two years old. And I think she overeggs it when she insists she’s always gone out and gotten what she wants; the number of rejections she’s racked up says otherwise. I did appreciate the #MeToo feminist perspective, though, looking back to her upbringing and the Harvey Weinsteins of the Hollywood world and forward to how she hopes things will be different for her daughters. I also admired her honesty about her mental health. But I wouldn’t really recommend this unless you are a devoted fan.
Rounding off my three-part look at some of the month’s new releases with two memoirs plus a memoir-writer’s self-help guide today. (Can you tell I’m a memoir junkie?) Topics range from medical mysteries and covert racism to a reclaiming of life after a near-death experience, but these three nonfiction works by women are linked by the determination to overcome self-doubt.
This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris
One morning, Taylor Harris and her husband (an African American family based in Charlottesville, Virginia) found their 22-month-old son Christopher, nicknamed “Tophs,” awake but unresponsive in his crib. In the years that followed, she and his doctors looked for answers as to why his body couldn’t regulate his blood sugar levels, sometimes leading to seizures, and to why his speech and mental processing remained delayed. All their tests and theories have never amounted to a conclusive diagnosis. This was a book that repeatedly surprised me. I’d assumed it would be exclusively about the medical mystery of Tophs’s physical and intellectual disability. But Harris elegantly weaves in a lot of other themes, too: mental illness, her own physical concerns (a BRCA2 mutation), racism, faith, and advocating for her children’s health and education. (Full review at BookBrowse.)
Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page by Cathy Rentzenbrink
Cathy Rentzenbrink is a lovely human being, and I’ve always appreciated her enthusiastic support of books. I’ve read all of her work even though I’ve been disappointed with her last few releases. There are so many writing guides out there – including several on memoir-writing specifically – that the first question to ask about one is, does it offer anything new? For me, this one doesn’t. In fact, it’s more of a therapy session than a practical writing guide.
The undemanding prose slides right down, but 60 pages in (at the end of Part One, “Preparation”) I realized all we’d had thus far was enumerating and countering the hang-ups of unconfident, procrastinating would-be writers. The rest of the book does then get into the nitty-gritty of producing a first draft (“Excavation”) of a life story and editing it into a more polished form. Rentzenbrink peppers in little tricks to keep oneself at the desk, like setting a timer or micro-goals, writing a section in the form of a letter, and dredging up sensory details. Most of the mini chapters are just a couple of pages. Several end with a series of prompts. I’m notorious for skipping the application questions in self-help books, but I’d be interested to hear if other readers have actually gone through these exercises and found them helpful.
I’m so familiar with the author’s own story from her three autobiographical works that I was less than patient about encountering certain incidents again here – though I was intrigued to learn that she gave up alcohol in the recent past after realizing that she was a problem drinker. I’ve also read most of the material in her Further Reading list; all told, I didn’t feel this book offered me much, as a lay reader or a maybe-some-day memoirist. But it seems to have been enormously popular among critics and readers (its average Goodreads rating is 4.38), so clearly a lot of people have been finding Rentzenbrink’s down-to-earth approach reassuring.
With thanks to Emma Finnigan PR and Bluebird for the proof copy for review.
The Cure for Sleep: Memoir of a Late-Waking Life by Tanya Shadrick
From my Most Anticipated list. Shadrick hangs around the fringes of nature writing cliques on Twitter, so I expected this to have more of a nature/travel element. Instead, it bears a fairy tale ambience, of a little girl lost in the woods and craving freedom; of a sleepwalking woman deciding to live more deliberately. It opens with a near-death experience: Shadrick, new mother to a son conceived after infertility treatment, suffered a severe haemorrhage after the placenta tore an artery and was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.
From this point she returns to the beginning of her life and proceeds chronologically, pausing at joyful or traumatic moments. Her childhood feels like the key to understanding everything else: her father left when she was a baby; her mother, all too aware of being of lower class, was driven to improve herself. Shadrick wanted her mother all to herself, at the same time as she felt trapped by her. She injured herself jumping off an outhouse roof in protest at her mother’s new boyfriend, who became her stepfather. At university she reacted against her upbringing in predictable ways, failing her first year and having an abortion. Even once happily married, she kept unconsciously searching for surrogate father (older male) figures.
After the postnatal operation, she felt a need to escape – by suicide if necessary – yet forced herself to stay, make connections in her town and be present for her children. But she remained a free spirit, swimming and writing a mile-long scroll as public performance art. Her work with hospice patients, recording their memories, qualified her to edit Lynne Roper’s wild swimming diaries into a Wainwright Prize-longlisted book.
Awakening versus sleep is the figurative framework for the memoir, with a feminist insistence on freedom and self-fulfilment at the same time as being a mother. This is an unusual book – at times overwritten and too deliberately moulded into tropes as a rebuttal to randomness, even though, looking back, I can’t decipher a coherent plot to the events – that reminded me most of Free Woman by Lara Feigel and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell.
With thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.
Does one of these books appeal to you?
It’s been a big month for new releases! I’m still working on a handful and will report back on two batches of three, tomorrow and Sunday; more will likely turn up in review roundups in future months. For today, I have a memoir in essays about a peripatetic writer’s life and an excerpt from my review of a junior doctor’s chronicle of the early days of the pandemic.
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg
I’ve enjoyed Attenberg’s four most recent novels (reviewed here: The Middlesteins and All This Could Be Yours) so was intrigued to hear that she was trying out nonfiction. She self-describes as a “moderately successful author,” now in her early fifties – a single, independent feminist based in New Orleans after years in Manhattan and then Brooklyn. (Name-dropping of author friends: “Lauren” (Groff), “Kristen” (Arnett) and “Viola” (di Grado), with whom she stays in Italy.) Leaving places abruptly had become a habit; travelling from literary festival to holiday to writing residency was her way of counterbalancing a safe, quiet writing life at home. She tells of visiting a friend in Hong Kong and teaching fiction for two weeks in Vilnius – where she learned that, despite her Jewish heritage, Holocaust tourism is not her thing. Anxiety starts to interfere with travel, though, and she takes six months off flying. Owning a New Orleans home where she can host guests is the most rooted she’s ever been.
Along with nomadism, creativity and being a woman are key themes. Attenberg notices how she’s treated differently from male writers at literary events, and sometimes has to counter antifeminist perspectives even from women – as in a bizarre debate she ended up taking part in at a festival in Portugal. She takes risks and gets hurt, physically and emotionally. Break-ups sting, but she moves on and tries to be a better person. There are a lot of hard-hitting one-liners about the writing life and learning to be comfortable in one’s (middle-aged) body:
I believe that one must arrive at an intersection of hunger and fear to make great art.
Who was I hiding from? I was only ever going to be me. I was only ever going to have this body forever. Life was too short not to have radical acceptance of my body.
Whenever my life turns into any kind of cliché, I am furious. Not me, I want to scream. Not me, I am special and unusual. But none of us are special and unusual. Our stories are all the same. It is just how you tell them that makes them worth hearing again.
I did not know yet how books would save me over and over again. I did not know that a book was a reason to live. I did not know that being alive was a reason to live.
Late on comes her #MeToo story, which in some ways feels like the core of the book. When she was in college, a creative writing classmate assaulted her on campus while drunk. She reported it but nothing was ever done; it only led to rumours and meanness towards her, and a year later she attempted suicide. You know how people will walk into a doctor’s appointment and discuss three random things, then casually drop in a fourth that is actually their overriding concern? I felt that way about this episode: that really the assault was what Attenberg wanted to talk about, and could have devoted much more of the book to.
The chapters are more like mini essays, flitting between locations and experiences in the same way she has done, and sometimes repeating incidents. I think the intent was to mimic, and embrace, the random shape that a life takes. Each vignette is like a competently crafted magazine piece, but the whole is no more than the sum of the parts.
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the proof copy for review.
Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki
Farooki is a novelist, lecturer, mum of four, and junior doctor. Her storytelling choices owe more to literary fiction than to impassive reportage. The second-person, present-tense narration drops readers right into her position. Frequent line breaks and repetition almost give the prose the rhythm of performance poetry. There is also wry humour, wordplay, slang and cursing. In February 2020, her sister Kiron had died of breast cancer. During the first 40 days of the initial UK lockdown – the book’s limited timeframe – she continues to talk to Kiron, and imagines she can hear her sister’s chiding replies. Grief opens the door for magic realism, despite the title – which comes from a Balzac quote. A hybrid work that reads as fluidly as a novel while dramatizing real events, this is sure to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a bereavement or medical memoir. (Full review coming soon at Shiny New Books.)
A great addition to my Covid chronicles repertoire!
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
Would one of these books interest you?
Friendship is a fairly common theme in my reading and, like sisterhood, it’s an element I can rarely resist. When I picked up a secondhand copy of Female Friends (below) in a charity shop in Hexham over the summer, I spied a chance for another thematic roundup. I limited myself to novels I’d read recently and to groups of women friends.
Before Everything by Victoria Redel (2017)
I found out about this one from Susan’s review at A life in books (and she included it in her own thematic roundup of novels on friendship). “The Old Friends” have known each other for decades, since elementary school. Anna, Caroline, Helen, Ming and Molly. Their lives have gone in different directions – painter, psychiatrist, singer in a rock band and so on – but in March 2013 they’re huddling together because Anna is terminally ill. Over the years she’s had four remissions, but it’s clear the lymphoma won’t go away this time. Some of Anna’s friends and family want her to keep fighting, but the core group of pals is going to have to learn to let her die on her own terms. Before that, though, they aim for one more adventure.
Through the short, titled sections, some of them pages in length but others only a sentence or two, you piece together the friends’ history and separate struggles. Here’s an example of one such fragment, striking for the frankness and intimacy; how coyly those bald numbers conceal such joyful and wrenching moments:
Actually, for What It’s Worth
Between them there were twelve delivered babies. Three six- to eight-week abortions. Three miscarriages. One post-amniocentesis selective abortion. That’s just for the record.
While I didn’t like this quite as much as Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg, which is similar in setup, it’s a must-read on the theme. It’s sweet and sombre by turns, and has bite. I also appreciated how Redel contrasts the love between old friends with marital love and the companionship of new neighbourly friends. I hadn’t heard of Redel before, but she’s published another four novels and three poetry collections. It’d be worth finding more by her. The cover image is inspired by a moment late in a book when they find a photograph of the five of them doing handstands in a sprinkler the summer before seventh grade. (Public library)
Female Friends by Fay Weldon (1974)
Like a cross between The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer; this is the darkly funny story of Marjorie, Chloe and Grace: three Londoners who have stayed friends ever since their turbulent childhood during the Second World War, when Marjorie was sent to live with Grace and her mother. They have a nebulous brood of children between them, some fathered by a shared lover (a slovenly painter named Patrick). Chloe’s husband is trying to make her jealous with his sexual attentions to their French nanny. Marjorie, who works for the BBC, is the only one without children; she has a gynaecological condition and is engaged in a desultory search for her father.
The book is mostly in the third person, but some chapters are voiced by Chloe and occasional dialogues are set out like a film script. I enjoyed the glimpses I got into women’s lives in the mid-20th century via the three protagonists and their mothers. All are more beholden to men than they’d like to be. But there’s an overall grimness to this short novel that left me wincing. I’d expected more nostalgia (“they are nostalgic, all the same, for those days of innocence and growth and noise. The post-war world is drab and grey and middle-aged. No excitement, only shortages and work”) and warmth, but this friendship trio is characterized by jealousy and resentment. (Secondhand copy)
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (2019)
“It was exhausting, being friends. Had they ever been able to tell each other the truth?”
It’s the day before Christmas Eve as seventysomethings Jude, Wendy and Adele gather to clear out their late friend’s Sylvie’s house in a fictional coastal town in New South Wales. This being Australia, that means blazing hot weather and a beach barbecue rather than a cosy winter scene. Jude is a bristly former restaurateur who has been the mistress of a married man for many years. Wendy is a widowed academic who brings her decrepit dog, Finn, along with her. Adele is a washed-up actress who carefully maintains her appearance but still can’t find meaningful work.
They know each other so well, faults and all. Things they think they’ve hidden are beyond obvious to the others. And for as much as they miss Sylvie, they are angry at her, too. But there is also a fierce affection in the mix that I didn’t sense in the Weldon: “[Adele] remembered them from long ago, two girls alive with purpose and beauty. Her love for them was inexplicable. It was almost bodily.” Yet Wendy compares their tenuous friendship to the Great Barrier Reef coral, at risk of being bleached.
It’s rare to see so concerted a look at women in later life, as the characters think back and wonder if they’ve made the right choices. There are plenty of secrets and self-esteem struggles, but it’s all encased in an acerbic wit that reminded me of Emma Straub and Elizabeth Strout. Terrific stuff. (Twitter giveaway win)
Some favourite lines:
“The past was striated through you, through your body, leaching into the present and the future.”
“Was this what getting old was made of? Routines and evasions, boring yourself to death with your own rigid judgements?”
On this theme, I have also read: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames, Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić, The Group by Lara Feigel (and Mary McCarthy), My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Expectation by Anna Hope, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker.
If you read just one … The Weekend was the best of this bunch for me.
Have you read much on this topic?
Excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for other places:
Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio
The quotation that gives Carofiglio’s tender novel its title is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” It lends an appropriate sense of time suspended, of earnest seeking and extreme circumstances: The main action of the book takes place over just a few days in June of 1983, when Italian teenager Antonio and his father are stranded in Marseilles while there for Antonio to be seen by an epilepsy specialist. The gift of this time outside of time allows them to get to know each other better, such that the memory of the trip will be precious to Antonio even decades later. I appreciated how the limited setting heightened this short novel’s emotions. Carofiglio invites readers to peer between the leisurely progression of events to see the bond that is being formed. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on HarperVia, a new publishing imprint for international literature.)
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Inspired by the composition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this Australian debut novel explores the lives of the women on its fringes through the words that were omitted. The suffrage movement and World War I loom large as the storyline enters the 1910s. I most appreciated the relationships Esme has with the various women in her life. The main action spans the 40 years of the original composition of the OED. That scope means there is a lot of skipping forward in time. Especially in the first half, I longed for the narrative to slow down so I could spend more time with this character. Despite the first-person narration, I never felt I knew Esme very well. Women’s bonds and women’s words are strong themes in this forthrightly feminist novel that, despite its flaws, would make a great book club selection. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my reading list of books about dictionaries and lost words.)
Shiny New Books
Notes from Deep Time: The Hidden Stories of the Earth Beneath Our Feet by Helen Gordon
To assess the place of humanity, we can look back to prehistory, but also forward to envision the “deep future.” (It was only in a late chapter on nuclear waste disposal sites and warning messages to the future that I found too much direct overlap with Footprints by David Farrier.) This engagingly blends both tactics, surveying the fields of geology and palaeontology and pondering the future traces of the Anthropocene. I most enjoyed the middle chapters, in which science meets wildlife and cultural studies. For instance, a chapter on ammonites leads into a profile of Mary Anning and the history of both fossil hunting and women in STEM careers. The prose is well pitched to the layman’s level. Interviews, travels, and snapshots from her own life generally keep the material from becoming too dry. An invigorating interdisciplinary tour. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)
My book club has been meeting via Zoom since April 2020. This is a common state of affairs for book clubs around the world. Especially since we have 12 members (if everyone attends, which is rare), we haven’t been able to contemplate meeting in person as of yet. However, a subset of us meet midway between the monthly reads to discuss women’s classics like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. For next week’s meeting on Mrs. Dalloway, we are going to attempt a six-person get-together in one member’s house.
Anyway, a neat thing we did last month was a Zoom chat with the author: a BBC correspondent who happens to be the brother of one of our members. If you’re a news junkie in the UK, you may know the name Jon Sopel, though since I don’t have a telly or ever listen to radio, I hadn’t encountered him until this “in-person” meet-up. He has been the BBC’s North America Editor since 2014.
UnPresidented is the third book he wrote over the course of the Trump presidency. It started off as a diary of the 2020 election campaign, beginning in July 2019, but of course soon morphed into something slightly different: a chronicle of life in D.C. and London during Covid-19 and a record of the Trump mishandling of the pandemic. But as well as a farcical election process and a public health crisis, 2020’s perfect storm also included economic collapse and social upheaval – thanks to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests worldwide plus isolated rioting.
UnPresidented served as a good reminder for me of the timeline of events and the full catalogue of outrages committed by Trump and his cronies. You just have to shake your head over the litany of ridiculous things he said and did, and got away with – any one of which might have sunk another president or candidate. The style is breezy and off-the-cuff, so the book reads quickly. There’s a good balance between world events and personal ones, with his family split across the UK and Australia. I appreciated the insight into differences from the British system. I thought it would be depressing reading back through the events of 2020, but for the most part the knowledge that everything turned out “right” allowed me to see the humour in it. Still, I found it excruciating reading about the four days following the election.
Sopel kindly gave us an hour of his time one Wednesday evening before he had to go on air and answered our questions about Biden, Harris, journalistic ethics, and more. He was charming and eloquent, as befits his profession.
Would any of these books interest you?
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each March by Cathy of 746 Books. This year I read works by four Irish women: a meditation on birds and craft, hard-hitting poems about body issues, autofiction that incorporates biography and translation to consider the shape of women’s lives across the centuries, and a novel that jets between Hong Kong and Scotland. Two of these were sent to me as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. I have some Irish music lined up to listen to (Hallow by Duke Special, At Swim by Lisa Hannigan, Chop Chop by Bell X1, Magnetic North by Iain Archer) and I’m ready to tell you all about these four books.
handiwork by Sara Baume (2020)
Back in February 2016, I reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, for Third Way magazine. A dark story of a middle-aged loner and his adopted dog setting off on a peculiar road trip, it was full of careful nature imagery. “I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things,” the narrator, Ray, states. The same might be said of Baume, who is a visual artist as well as an author and put together this gently illuminating book over the course of 2018, at the same time as she was working on several sculptural installations. In short sections of a paragraph or two, or sometimes no more than a line, she describes her daily routines in her home workspaces: in the morning she listens to barely audible talk radio as she writes, while the afternoons are for carving and painting.
Working with her hands is a family tradition passed down from her grandfather and father, who died in the recent past – of lung cancer from particles he was exposed to at the sandstone quarry where he worked. Baume has a sense of responsibility for how she spends her time and materials. Concern about waste is at odds with a drive for perfection: she discarded her first 100 plaster birds before she was happy with the series used to illustrate this volume. Snippets of craft theory, family memories, and trivia about bird migration and behaviour are interspersed with musings on what she makes. The joy of holding a physical object in the hand somehow outweighs that of having committed virtual words to a hard drive.
Despite the occasional lovely line, this scattered set of reflections doesn’t hang together. The bird facts, in particular, feel shoehorned in for symbolism, as in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. It’s a shame, as from the blurb I thought this book couldn’t be better suited to my tastes. Ultimately, as with Spill, Baume’s prose doesn’t spark much for me.
“Most of the time spent making is spent, in fact, in the approach.”
“I must stop once the boredom becomes intolerable, knowing that if I plunge on past this point I will risk arriving at resentment”
“What we all shared – me, my dad, his dad – was a suspicion of modern life, a loathing of fashion, a disappointment with the new technologies and a preference for the ad hoc contraptions of the past”
“The glorious, crushing, ridiculous repetition of life.”
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. handiwork is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (2021)
This audacious debut collection of fleshly poems is the best I’ve come across so far this year. The body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines.
Where did I start?
Yes, with the heart, enlarged,
its chambers stretched through caring.
Oh is it in defiance or defeat, I don’t know,
I eat it anyway, raw, still warm.
The size of my fist, I love it.
(from the opening poem, “Learning to Eat My Mother, where My Mother Is the Teacher”)
Meat avoidance goes beyond principled vegetarianism to become a phobia. Like the female saints, the speaker will deny herself until she achieves spiritual enlightenment.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself.
(from “Alternative Medicine”)
The title phrase comes from “Open Your Mouth,” in which the god Krishna, as a toddler, nourishes his mother with clay. A child feeding its mother reverses the expected situation, which is described in one of the book’s most striking poems, “Researching the Irish Famine.” The site of an old workhouse divulges buried horrors: “Mothers exhausted their own bodies / to produce milk. […] The starving / human / literally / consumes / itself.”
Corpses and meals; body odour and graves. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to this collection, but it also has its lighter moments: the sexy “Paris Syndrome,” the low-stakes anxiety over pleasing one’s mother in “Guest Room,” and the playful closer, “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” (“O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting / bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing”). Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry. Verse readalikes would include The Air Year by Caroline Bird, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. This comes out on the 25th.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2020)
“This is a female text.” In an elegant loop, Ní Ghríofa begins and ends with this line, and uses it as a refrain throughout. What is the text? It is this book, yes, as well as the 18th-century Irish-language poem that becomes an obsession for the author/narrator, “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill; however, it is also the female body, its milk and blood just as significant for storytelling as any ink.
Because the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s, I took her experiences at face value. As the narrative opens in 2012, Ní Ghríofa and her husband have three young sons and life for her is a list of repetitive household tasks that must be completed each day. She donates pumped breast milk for premature babies as a karmic contribution to the universe: something she can control when so much around her she feels she can’t, like frequent evictions and another pregnancy. Reading Eibhlín Dubh’s lament for her murdered husband, contemplating a new translation of it, and recreating her life from paltry archival fragments: these tasks broaden her life and give an intellectual component to complement the bodily one.
My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink. […] I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh.
Ní Ghríofa remembers other times in her life in an impressionistic stream: starting a premed course at university, bad behaviour that culminated in suicidal ideation, a near-collision on a highway, her daughter’s birth by emergency C-section, finally buying a house and making it a home by adopting a stray kitten and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can tell from the precision of her words that Ní Ghríofa started off as a poet, and I loved how she writes about her own life. I had little interest in Eibhlín Dubh’s story, but maybe it’s enough for her to be an example of women “cast once more in the periphery of men’s lives.” It’s a book about women’s labour – physical and emotional – and the traces of it that remain. I recommend it alongside I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Mother Ship by Francesca Segal.
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. A Ghost in the Throat is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell (2004)
This is the earliest work of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read – it was her third novel, following After You’d Gone and My Lover’s Lover (I finally found those two at a charity shop last year and I’m saving them for a rainy day). It took me a long time to get into this one. It’s delivered in bitty sections that race between characters and situations, not generally in chronological order. It’s not until nearly the halfway point that you get a sense of how it all fits together.
Although there are many secondary characters, the two main strands belong to Jake, a young white filmmaker raised in Hong Kong by a bohemian mother, and Stella, a Scottish-Italian radio broadcaster. When a Chinese New Year celebration turns into a stampede, Jake and his girlfriend narrowly escape disaster and rush into a commitment he’s not ready for. In the meantime, Stella gets spooked by a traumatic flash from her childhood and flees London for a remote Scottish hotel. She’s very close to her older sister, Nina, who was deathly ill as a child (O’Farrell inserts a scene I was familiar with from I Am, I Am, I Am, when she heard a nurse outside her room chiding a noisy visitor, “There’s a little girl dying in there”), but now it’s Nina who will have to convince Stella to take the chance at happiness that life is offering.
In the end, this felt like a rehearsal for This Must Be the Place; it has the myriad settings (e.g., here, Italy, Wales and New Zealand are also mentioned) but not the emotional heft. With a setup like this, you sort of know where things are going, don’t you? Despite Stella’s awful secret, she is as flat a character as Jake. Simple boy-meets-girl story lines don’t hold a lot of appeal for me now, if they ever did. Still, the second half was a great ride.
Also, I’ve tried twice over the past year, but couldn’t get further than page 80 in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (2020), a black comedy about two brothers whose farmer father goes bankrupt and gets a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s debut, Orchid & the Wasp, and this second novel is now on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that nominations come from the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, and any book written in English is eligible, so nonfiction and poetry share space with fiction on the varied shortlist of eight titles:
- handiwork by Sara Baume (Tramp Press)
- Indelicacy by Amina Cain (Daunt Books)
- As You Were by Elaine Feeney (Harvill Secker)
- Poor by Caleb Femi (Penguin)
- My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long (Picador)
- In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)
- A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)
- The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)
I was delighted to be sent the whole shortlist to feature. I’d already read Rachel Long’s poetry collection and Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir (reviewed here), but I’m keen to start on the rest and will read and review as many as possible before the online prize announcement on Wednesday the 24th. I’m starting with the Baume, Cain, Femi and Roffey.
For more information on the prize, these eight authors, and the longlist, see the website.
(The remainder of the text in this post comes from the official press release.)
The Rathbones Folio Prize — known as the “writers’ prize” — rewards the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form. It is the only award governed by an international academy of distinguished writers and critics, ensuring a unique quality and consistency in the nomination and judging process.
The judges (Roger Robinson, Sinéad Gleeson, and Jon McGregor) have chosen books by seven women and one man to be in contention for the £30,000 prize which looks for the best fiction, non-fiction and poetry in English from around the world. Six out of the eight titles are by British and Irish writers, with three out of Ireland alone (two of which are published by the same publisher, Tramp Press). The spirit of experimentation is also reflected in the strong showing of independent publishers and small presses (five out of eight).
Chair of judges Roger Robinson says: “It was such a joy to spend detailed and intimate time with the books nominated for the Rathbones Folio Prize and travel deep into their worlds. The judges chose the eight books on the shortlist because they are pushing at the edges of their forms in interesting ways, without sacrificing narrative or execution. The conversations between the judges may have been as edifying as the books themselves. From a judges’ vantage point, the future of book publishing looks incredibly healthy – and reading a book is still one of the most revolutionary things that one can do.”
The 2021 shortlist ranges from Amina Cain’s Indelicacy – a feminist fable about class and desire – and the exploration of the estates of South London through poetry and photography in Caleb Femi’s Poor, to a formally innovative, genre-bending memoir about domestic abuse in Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, and a feminist revision of Caribbean mermaid myths, in Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch.
In the darkly comic novel As You Were, poet Elaine Feeney tackles the intimate histories, institutional failures, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland, while Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat finds the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother, prompting her to turn detective. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is published by Dublin’s Tramp Press, also publishers of Sara Baume’s handiwork – which charts the author’s daily process of making and writing, and explores what it is to create and to live as an artist – while poet Rachel Long’s acclaimed debut collection My Darling from the Lions skewers sexual politics, religious awakenings and family quirks with wit, warmth and precision.
My thanks to the publishers and FMcM Associates for the free copies for review.
Today I’m featuring three more works of fiction that were released this month, as a supplement to yesterday’s review of Mrs Death Misses Death. Although the four are hugely different in setting and style, and I liked some better than others (such is the nature of reading and book reviewing), together they’re further proof – as if we needed it – that female authors are pushing the envelope. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any or all of these on the Women’s Prize longlist in March.
The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin
What happens next for Cinderella?
Grushin’s fourth novel unpicks a classic fairy tale narrative, starting 13.5 years into a marriage when, far from being starry-eyed with love for Prince Roland, the narrator hates her philandering husband and wants him dead. As she retells the Cinderella story to her children one bedtime, it only underscores how awry her own romance has gone: “my once-happy ending has proved to be only another beginning, a prelude to a tale dimmer, grittier, far more ambiguous, and far less suitable for children”. She gathers Roland’s hair and nails and goes to a witch for a spell, but her fairy godmother shows up to interfere. The two embark on a good cop/bad cop act as the princess runs backward through her memories: one defending Roland and the other convinced he’s a scoundrel.
Part One toggles back and forth between flashbacks (in the third person and past tense) and the present-day struggle for the narrator’s soul. She comes to acknowledge her own ignorance and bad behaviour. “All I want is to be free—free of him, free of my past, free of my story. Free of myself, the way I was when I was with him.” In Part Two, as the princess tries out different methods of escape, Grushin coyly inserts allusions to other legends and nursery rhymes: a stepsister lives with her many children in a house shaped like a shoe; the witch tells a variation on the Bluebeard story; the fairy godmother lives in a Hansel and Gretel-like candy cottage; the narrator becomes a maid for 12 slovenly sisters; and so on.
The plot feels fairly aimless in this second half, and the mixture of real-world and fantasy elements is peculiar. I much preferred Grushin’s previous book, Forty Rooms (and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, one of her chief inspirations). However, her two novels share a concern with how women’s ambitions can take a backseat to their roles, and both weave folktales and dreams into a picture of everyday life. But my favourite part of The Charmed Wife was the subplot: interludes about Brie and Nibbles, the princess’s pet mice; their lives being so much shorter, they run through many generations of a dramatic saga while the narrator (whose name we do finally learn, just a few pages from the end) is stuck in place.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
Outlawed by Anna North
I was a huge fan of North’s previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which cobbles together the story of the title character, a bisexual filmmaker, from accounts by the people who knew her best. Outlawed, an alternative history/speculative take on the traditional Western, could hardly be more different. In a subtly different version of the United States, everyone now alive in the 1890s is descended from those who survived a vicious 1830s flu epidemic. The duty to repopulate the nation has led to a cult of fertility and devotion to the Baby Jesus. From her mother, a midwife and herbalist, Ada has learned the basics of medical care, but the causes of barrenness remain a mystery and childlessness is perceived as a curse.
Ada marries at 17 and fails to get pregnant within a year. After an acquaintance miscarries, rumours start to spread about Ada being a witch. Kicked out by her mother-in-law, she takes shelter first at a convent and then with the Hole in the Wall gang. She’ll be the doctor to this band of female outlaws who weren’t cut out for motherhood and shunned marriage – including lesbians, a mixed-race woman, and their leader, the Kid, who is nonbinary. The Kid is a mentally tortured prophet with a vision of making the world safe for people like them (“we were told a lie about God and what He wants from us”), mainly by, Robin Hood-like, redistributing wealth through hold-ups and bank robberies. Ada, who longs to conduct proper research into reproductive health rather than relying on religious propaganda, falls for another gender nonconformist, Lark, and does what she can to make the Kid’s dream a reality.
Reese Witherspoon choosing this for her Hello Sunshine book club was a great chance for North’s work to get more attention. However, I felt that the ideas behind this novel were more noteworthy than the execution. The similarity to The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniable, though I liked this a bit more. I most enjoyed the medical and religious themes, and appreciated the attention to childless and otherwise unconventional women. But the setup is so condensed and the consequences of the gang’s major heist so rushed that I wondered if the novel needed another 100 pages to stretch its wings. I’ll just have to await North’s next book.
With thanks to W&N for the proof copy for review.
little scratch by Rebecca Watson
I love a circadian narrative and had heard interesting things about the experimental style used in this debut novel. I even heard Watson read a passage from it as part of the Faber Live Fiction Showcase and found it very funny and engaging. But I really should have tried an excerpt before requesting this for review; I would have seen at a glance that it wasn’t for me. I don’t have a problem with prose being formatted like poetry (Girl, Woman, Other; Stubborn Archivist; the prologue of Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa; parts of Mrs Death Misses Death), but here it seemed to me that it was only done to alleviate the tedium of the contents.
A young woman who, like Watson, works for a newspaper, trudges through a typical day: wake up, get ready, commute to the office, waste time and snack in between doing bits of work, get outraged about inconsequential things, think about her boyfriend (only ever referred to as “my him” – probably my biggest specific pet peeve about the book), and push down memories of a sexual assault. Thus, the only thing that really happens happened before the book even started. Her scratching, to the point of open wounds and scabs, seems like a psychosomatic symptom of unprocessed trauma. By the end, she’s getting ready to tell her boyfriend about the assault, which seems like a step in the right direction.
I might have found Watson’s approach captivating in a short story, or as brief passages studded in a longer narrative. At first it’s a fun puzzle to ponder how these mostly unpunctuated words, dotted around the pages in two to six columns, fit together – should one read down each column, or across each row, or both? – but when all the scattershot words are only there to describe a train carriage filling up or repetitive quotidian actions (sifting through e-mails, pedalling a bicycle), the style soon grates. You may have more patience with it than I did if you loved A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing or books by Emma Glass.
A favourite passage: “got to do this thing again, the waking up thing, the day thing, the work thing, disentangling from my duvet thing, this is something, this is a thing I have to do then,” [appears all as one left-aligned paragraph]
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow I’ll review three nonfiction works published in January, all on a medical theme.