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?
My five new releases for August include two critical responses to contemporary classics; two poetry books, one a debut collection from Carcanet Press and the other by an author better known for fiction; and a circadian novel by one of my favorite authors.
I start with two of the latest releases from Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series. The tagline is “Essential Readings of the New Canon,” and the idea is that “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics.” (I reviewed the monographs on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post.)
Dear Knausgaard: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle by Kim Adrian
Karl Ove Knausgaard turned his pretty ordinary life into thousands of pages of autofiction that many readers have found addictive. Adrian valiantly grapples with his six-volume exploration of identity, examining the treatment of time and the dichotomies of intellect versus emotions, self versus other, and life versus fiction. She marvels at the ego that could sustain such a project, and at the seemingly rude decision to use all real names (whereas in her own family memoir she assigned aliases to most major figures). At many points she finds the character of “Karl Ove” insufferable, especially when he’s a teenager in Book 4, and the books’ prose dull. Knausgaard’s focus on male novelists and his stereotypical treatment of feminine qualities, here and in his other work, frequently madden her.
So why is My Struggle compelling nonetheless? It occupies her mind and her conversations for years. Is it something about the way that Knausgaard extracts meaning from seemingly inconsequential details? About how he stretches and compresses time in a Proustian manner to create a personal highlights reel? She frames her ambivalent musings as a series of letters written as if to Knausgaard himself (or “KOK,” as she affectionately dubs him) between February and September 2019. Cleverly, she mimics his style in both the critical enquiry and the glimpses into her own life, including all its minutiae – the weather, daily encounters, what she sees out the window and what she thinks about it all. It’s bold, playful and funny, and, all told, I enjoyed it more than Knausgaard’s own writing.
(I myself have only read Book 1, A Death in the Family, and wasn’t planning on continuing with My Struggle, but I think I will make an exception for Book 3 because of my recent fascination with childhood memoirs. I had better luck with Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet, of which I’ve read all but Spring. I’ve reviewed Summer and Winter.)
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
The Wanting Was a Wilderness: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the Art of Memoir by Alden Jones
Hiking is boring, yet Cheryl Strayed turned it into a beloved memoir. Jones explores how Wild works: how Strayed the author creates “Cheryl,” likeable despite her drug use and promiscuity; how the fixation on the boots and the backpack that carry her through her quest reflect the obsession over the loss of her mother; how the flashbacks break up the narrative and keep you guessing about whether she’ll reach her literal and emotional destinations.
Jones also considers the precedents of wilderness literature and the 1990s memoir boom that paved the way for Wild. I most enjoyed this middle section, which, like Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, surveys some of the key publications from a burgeoning genre. Another key point of reference is Vivian Gornick, who draws a distinction between “the situation” (the particulars or context) and “the story” (the message) – sometimes the map or message comes first, and sometimes you only discover it as you go along.
I was a bit less interested in Jones’s reminiscences of her own three-month wilderness experience during college, when, with Outward Bound, she went to North Carolina and Mexico and hiked part of the Appalachian Trail and a volcano. This was the trip on which she faced up to her sexuality and had a short-lived relationship with a fellow camper, Melissa. But working out that she was bisexual and marrying a woman were both, as presented here, false endings. The real ending was her decision to leave her marriage – even though they had three children; even though the relationship was often fine. She attributes her courage to go, believing something better was possible, to Strayed’s work. And that’s the point of this series: rereading a contemporary classic until it becomes part of your own story.
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
Two poetry releases:
Growlery by Katherine Horrex
As in Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts, released by Carcanet in June, I noted the juxtaposition of natural and industrial scenes. Horrex’s “Four Muses” include a power plant and a steelworks, and she writes about pottery workers and the Manchester area, but she also explores Goat Fell on foot. Two of my favorite poems were nature-based: “Omen,” about corpse flowers, and “Wood Frog.” Alliteration, metaphors and smells are particularly effective in the former. Though I quailed at the sight of an entry called “Brexit,” it’s a subtle offering that depicts mistrust and closed minds – “People personable as tents zipped shut”. By contrast, “House of Other Tongues” revels in the variety of languages and foods in an international student dorm. A few poems circle around fertility and pregnancy. The linking themes aren’t very strong across the book, but there are a few gems.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver may not be well known for her poetry, but this is actually her second collection of verse after the bilingual Another America/Otra America (1992). The opening segment, “How to Fly,” is full of folk wisdom from nature and the body’s intuitive knowledge. “Pellegrinaggio” is a set of travel poems about accompanying her Italian mother-in-law back to her homeland. “This Is How They Come Back to Us” is composed of elegies for the family’s dead; four shorter remaining sections are inspired by knitting, literature, daily life, and concern for the environment. As with The Undying by Michel Faber, the book’s themes are stronger than its poetic techniques, but Kingsolver builds striking natural imagery and entrancing rhythms.
Two favorite passages to whet your appetite:
How to drink water when there is wine— / Once I knew all these brick-shaped things, / took them for the currency of survival. / Now I have lived long and I know better.
Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse / asleep in the shade of your future. / Pay at the window. You’ll be surprised: you / can pass off hope like a bad check. You still / have time, that’s the thing. To make it good.
(To be reviewed in full, in conjunction with other recent/upcoming poetry releases, including Dearly by Margaret Atwood, for Shiny New Books.)
I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss. (I’m unsure of the line breaks above because of the formatting.)
And finally, a much-anticipated release – bonus points for it having “Summer” in the title!
Summerwater by Sarah Moss
This is nearly as compact as Moss’s previous novella, Ghost Wall, yet contains a riot of voices. Set on one long day at a Scottish holiday park, it moves between the minds of 12 vacationers disappointed by the constant rain – “not that you come to Scotland expecting sun but this is a really a bit much, day after day of it, torrential” – and fed up with the loud music and partying that’s come from the Eastern Europeans’ chalet several nights this week. In the wake of Brexit, the casual xenophobia espoused by several characters is not surprising, but still sobering, and paves the way for a climactic finale that was not what I expected after some heavy foreshadowing involving a teenage girl going off to the pub through the woods.
The day starts at 5 a.m. with Justine going for a run, despite a recent heart health scare, and spends time with retirees, an engaged couple spending most of their time in bed, a 16-year-old kayaker, a woman with dementia, and more. We see different aspects of family dynamics as we revisit a previous character’s child, spouse or sibling. I had to laugh at Milly picturing Don Draper during sex with Josh, and at Claire getting an hour to herself without the kids and having no idea what to do with it beyond clean up and make a cup of tea. Moss gets each stream-of-consciousness internal monologue just right, from a frantic mum to a sarcastic teen.
Yet I had to wonder what it all added up to; this feels like a creative writing student exercise, with the ending not worth waiting for. Cosmic/nature interludes are pretentious à la Reservoir 13. It’s not the first time this year that I’ve been disappointed by the latest from a favorite author (see also Hamnet). But my previous advice stands: If you haven’t read Sarah Moss, do so immediately.
My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
What August releases can you recommend?
I didn’t manage a traditional classic this month: I stalled on Cider with Rosie and gave up on Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust after just 16 pages. Instead, I’m highlighting three books from Fiction Advocate’s new series about re-reading modern classics, “…Afterwords.” Their tagline is “Essential Readings of the New Canon,” and the concept is to have “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics.”
As Italo Calvino notes in his invaluable essay “Why Read the Classics?”, “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’.” Harold Bloom agrees in The Western Canon: “One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify.” But readers will also encounter books that strike such a chord with them that they become personal classics. Calvino exhorts readers that “during unenforced reading … you will come across the book which will become ‘your’ book…‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”
For the Afterwords series, the three writers below have each chosen a modern classic that they can’t stop reading for all it has to say to their own situation and on humanity in general.
I Meant to Kill Ye: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian by Stephanie Reents (2018)
Blood Meridian must be one of the two or three bleakest books I’ve ever read. I was led to it by Bloom, who speaks about it as a, if not the, Great American Novel. It’s over 10 years since I’ve read it now, but I still remember some of the specific incidences of violence, like skewering babies and sodomizing corpses on a battlefield, as well as the overall feeling of nihilism: there’s no reason for the evil promulgated by characters like the Judge; it is simply a reality – perhaps the human condition.
Reents, who teaches English at the College of the Holy Cross, returns to Blood Meridian, a novel she has re-read compulsively over the years, to ask why it continues to have such a hold over her. Its third-person perspective is so distant that we never understand characters’ motivations or glimpse their inner lives, she notes; everyone seems like a pawn in a fated course. She usually shies away from violence and long descriptive passages; she has an uneasy relationship with the West, having moved away from Idaho to live on the East coast. So why should this detached, brutal Western based on the Glanton Gang’s Mexico/Texas killing spree have so captivated her? “Often, we most admire the books that we could never produce, the writing styles or intellects so different from our own that we aren’t even tempted to try imitating them,” she offers as explanation. “It’s a pure kind of admiration, unsullied by envy.” (I feel that way about Faulkner and Steinbeck.)
As part of her quest, Reents recreated some of the Gang’s desert route and traveled to the Texas State University library near Austin to look at McCarthy’s early drafts, notes and correspondence. She was intrigued to learn that the Kid was a more conventional POV character to start with, and McCarthy initially included more foreshadowing. By cutting all of it, he made it so that the book’s extreme violence comes out of nowhere. Reents also explores the historical basis for the story via General Samuel Chamberlain’s dubious memoir. Pondering the volatility of the human heart as she drives along the Mexican border, she ends on the nicely timely note of a threatened Trump-built wall. I doubt I could stomach reading Blood Meridian again (though I’ve read another two McCarthy novels since), but I enjoyed revisiting it with Reents as she finds herself “re-bewildered by its beauty and horror.”
A Little in Love with Everyone: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home by Genevieve Hudson (2018)
Alison Bechdel is one of Hudson’s queer heroes (along with James Baldwin, Tracy Chapman, and seven others), portrayed opposite the first page of each chapter in black and white drawings by Pace Taylor – the sort of people who gave her the courage to accept her lesbian identity after a conventional Alabama upbringing.
As portrayed in her landmark graphic memoir Fun Home, Bechdel was in college and finally coming to terms with her sexuality at the same time that she learned that her father was gay and her parents were about to divorce. Her father died in an accident just a few months later and, though he had many affairs, had never managed to live out his homosexuality openly. As Bechdel’s mother scoffed, “Your father tell the truth? Please!” By contrast, Hudson appreciates Bechdel so much because of her hard-won honesty: “In her work, Bechdel does the opposite of lying. She excavates the real. She dredges up the stuff of her life, embarrassing parts and all.”
Hudson looks at how people craft their own coming-out narratives, the importance of which cannot be overemphasized, in her experience. “Coming out was a tangible thing with tangible effects. For every friend who left my life, a new person arrived—usually someone with broader horizons, exciting stories, and a deviance that seemed sweet and sexy and sincere. After I came out, roaming the streets of Charleston in fat sunglasses and thin dresses, a group of beautiful lesbians appeared out of nowhere. … Everyone was a little in love with everyone.”
A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking by Jacob Bacharach (2018)
I made the mistake of not taking any notes on, or even marking out any favorite passages in, this, so all I can tell you is that for me it was the most powerful of the three I’ve tried from the series. The author re-examines Didion’s work in the light of his own encounter with loss – his brother’s death from a drug overdose – and ponders why it has become such a watershed in bereavement literature. Didion really is the patron saint of grief thanks to her two memoirs, Magical Thinking and Blue Nights – after she was widowed she also lost her only daughter – even though she writes with a sort of intellectual detachment; you have to intuit the emotion between the lines. Bacharach smartly weaves his family story with a literate discussion of Didion’s narratives and cultural position to make a snappy and inviting book you could easily read in one sitting.
Indeed, all of the Afterwords books are 120–160-page, small-format paperbacks that would handily slip into a pocket or purse.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copies for review.
The other titles in the series are An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom by Jonathan Russell Clark (on 2666 by Roberto Bolaño), New Uses for Failure by Adam Colman (on 10:04 by Ben Lerner, and Bizarro Worlds by Stacie Williams (on The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem).
Next month’s plan: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa will be my classic to get me in the mood for traveling to Italy for the first week of July.