I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (20+), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list some of my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. The following are in chronological order.
- The Orkney Islands were the setting for Close to Where the Heart Gives Out by Malcolm Alexander, which I read last year. They showed up, in one chapter or occasional mentions, in The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, plus I read a book of Christmas-themed short stories (some set on Orkney) by George Mackay Brown, the best-known Orkney author. Gavin Francis (author of Intensive Care) also does occasional work as a GP on Orkney.
- The movie Jaws is mentioned in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Landfill by Tim Dee.
- The Sámi people of the far north of Norway feature in Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
- Twins appear in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey. In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald mentions that she had a twin who died at birth, as does a character in Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. A character in The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard is delivered of twins, but one is stillborn. From Wrestling the Angel by Michael King I learned that Janet Frame also had a twin who died in utero.
- Fennel seeds are baked into bread in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley. Later, “fennel rolls” (but I don’t know if that’s the seed or the vegetable) are served in Monogamy by Sue Miller.
- A mistress can’t attend her lover’s funeral in Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey.
- A sudden storm drowns fishermen in a tale from Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
- Silver Spring, Maryland (where I lived until age 9) is mentioned in one story from To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss and is also where Peggy Seeger grew up, as recounted in her memoir First Time Ever. Then it got briefly mentioned, as the site of the Institute of Behavioral Research, in Livewired by David Eagleman.
- Lamb is served with beans at a dinner party in Monogamy by Sue Miller and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields.
- Trips to Madagascar in Landfill by Tim Dee and Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer.
- Hospital volunteering in My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock and Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession.
- A Ronan is the subject of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World and the author of Leonard and Hungry Paul (Hession).
- The Magic Mountain (by Thomas Mann) is discussed in Scattered Limbs by Iain Bamforth, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.
- Frankenstein is mentioned in The Biographer’s Tale by A.S. Byatt, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.
- Rheumatic fever and missing school to avoid heart strain in Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks and Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. Janet Frame also had rheumatic fever as a child, as I discovered in her biography.
- Reading two novels whose titles come from The Tempest quotes at the same time: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame and This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson.
- A character in Embers by Sándor Márai is nicknamed Nini, which was also Janet Frame’s nickname in childhood (per Wrestling the Angel by Michael King).
- A character loses their teeth and has them replaced by dentures in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Also, the latest cover trend I’ve noticed: layers of monochrome upturned faces. Several examples from this year and last. Abstract faces in general seem to be a thing.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
I’ve never had a Christmas Day without my immediate family or in-laws before, but when West Berkshire leapt into the Tier 4 (highest) COVID-19 risk category on Saturday it was clear that even our modest plans to spend 48 hours at my parents-in-law’s home by the coast would be dashed. How we’d looked forward to seeing other people and going somewhere else! Nothing dramatic; just a change of scene and an excuse to pack an overnight bag and a giant tote full of books. The bright side, if there is one, is that we can choose exactly how to spend the holidays, and my husband – a fantastic cook – will have total control over the feast.
To keep our spirits up, we’ve done more Christmas decorating than usual. Our lounge is dominated by the biggest tree we’ve had yet, there’s holly all over, and we strung colored fairy lights across one wall. After Saturday’s bad news, we brought forward our annual viewing of Elf. And of course, I have a stack of seasonally appropriate books at the ready.
Here’s the first two I managed to read for review:
Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown
Many of these 30 short stories originally appeared in publications like the Scotsman, Tablet and Glasgow Herald between the 1940s and 1990s, with some also reprinted in previous Mackay Brown story volumes. This posthumous collection of seasonal tales by Orkney’s best-known writer runs the gamut from historical fiction to timeless fable, and travels from the Holy Land to Scotland’s islands. Often, Orkney is contrasted with Edinburgh, as in one of my favorites, “A Christmas Exile,” in which a boy is sent off to Granny’s house in Orkney one winter while his mother is in hospital and longs to make it home in time for Christmas.
Although the main characters are usually crofters, fishermen and lairds, they take on other roles in Nativity and Christmas Carol-like setups. For instance, a skipper, a miller, and a shepherd play the part of the Three Kings, while a greedy general merchant who won’t close his shop for Christmas Day is like Ebenezer Scrooge. Biblical and Dickensian figures merge in “An Epiphany Tale,” in which a deaf-blind-mute boy is visited by three strangers who give him back each of his senses, in turn, for one magical day. Characters get visions of the past or glimpses of how the other half live (“The Poor Man in His Castle”). Children are disabused of the idea of Santa Claus, but the unexplained still fuels a sense of wonder, as in Jeanette Winterson’s holiday stories. Even the poor have small gifts and pleasures to look forward to.
As editor William S. Peterson notes in his introduction, Calvinism had erased much of the joy from Christmas in Scotland, but in Mackay Brown’s lifetime he saw Yule traditions returning and was keen to emphasize that Christmas was not just about one day of celebration but was a whole season running from Advent through to Epiphany. The story “I Saw Three Ships…” remembers an oppressed past, though: set at the end of the Civil War, after King Charles I was beheaded, it is set at a time when the government declared “‘There will be no more Christmas. Christmas is abolished and forbid in the islands here, as it has been put down everywhere in this commonwealth. We will have no more of such ancient mummery.’ … Men reckoned that that was the longest coldest dreichest winter ever known in Orkney.” Those words might feel gloomily appropriate, but let’s celebrate all the more in defiance.
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell
Words for snow exist in most of the world’s languages – even those spoken in countries where it rarely, if ever, snows. For instance, Thai has “hima” at the ready even though there were only once claims of a snow flurry in Thailand, in 1955. Campbell meanders through history, legend, and science in these one- to five-page essays. I was most taken by the pieces on German “kunstschnee” (the fake snow used on movie sets), Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” (snowflakes big as a dog’s paw, a phrase used as a track title on one of Jónsi’s albums – an excuse for discussing the amazing Sigur Rós), and Estonian “jäätee” (the terrifying ice road that runs between the mainland and the island of Hiiumaa – only when the ice is 22 cm thick, and with cars traveling 2 minutes apart and maintaining a speed of 25–40 km/hour).
The white and blue tendrils of the naked hardback’s cover creep over onto the endpapers, each essay is headed by a Wilson Bentley photograph of a snowflake, and the type is in a subtle dark blue ink rather than black. Too many of the essays are thin or dull, such that the contents don’t live up to the gorgeous physical object they fill. Still, I imagine you have a snow-loving relative who would appreciate a copy as a seasonal coffee table book.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
“The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather (1896)
This Renard Press pamphlet supporting the Three Peas charity (in aid of Europe’s refugees) was sent to me as a Christmas card alternative by Annabel/Shiny New Books. A young man wanders the slushy streets of Chicago one Christmas Eve. On this, his 24th birthday, he laments how low he has sunk that he has to rob the rich in order to get money to eat. But in this take on the Prodigal Son story, there is a second chance at forgiveness and a good life. I was reminded of the high society atmosphere of Edith Wharton’s work and the moral fables of O. Henry. The lovely little story has a William Morris design on the cover. I’ll keep it with my small collection of Christmas books and bring it out to reread in future years.
Are you reading any Christmas or wintry books?
What are your plans for the holidays?
As I mentioned on Tuesday, I previously knew of Annalena McAfee only as Mrs. Ian McEwan, though she has a distinguished literary background: she founded the Guardian Review and edited it for six years, was Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times, and is the author of multiple children’s books and one previous novel for adults, The Spoiler (2011).
Well, anyone who reads Hame will be saying “Ian who?” as this is on such a grand scale compared to anything McEwan has ever attempted. The subtitle, “The Fascaray Archives,” gives an idea of how thorough McAfee means to be: the life of fictional poet Grigor McWatt is her way into everything that forms the Scottish identity. Her invented island of Fascaray is a carefully constructed microcosm of Scotland from ancient times to today. I loved the little glimpses of recent history, like the referendum on independence and a Donald Trump figure, billionaire “Archie Tupper,” bulldozing an environmentally sensitive area to build his new golf course (this really happened, in Aberdeenshire in 2012).
Narrator Mhairi McPhail arrives on Fascaray in August 2014, her nine-year-old daughter Agnes in tow. She’s here to oversee the opening of a new museum, edit a seven-volume edition of McWatt’s magnum opus, The Fascaray Compendium (a 70-year journal detailing the island’s history, language, flora, fauna and customs), and complete a critical biography of the poet. Over the next four months she often questions the feasibility of her multi-strand project. She also frets about her split from Marco, whom she left back in New York City after their separate infidelities. And her rootlessness – she’s Canadian via Scotland but has spent a lot of time in the States, giving her a mixed-up heritage and accent – is a constant niggle.
Mhairi’s narrative sections share space with excerpts from her biography of McWatt and extracts from McWatt’s own writing: The Fascaray Compendium, newspaper columns, letters to on-again, off-again lover Lilias Hogg, and Scots translations of famous poets from Blake to Yeats. We learn of key events from the island’s history through Mhairi’s biography and McWatt’s prose, including ongoing tension between lairds and crofters, Finnverinnity House being used as a Special Ops training school during World War II, a lifeboat lost in a gale in the 1970s, and the way the fishing industry is now ceding to hydroelectric power.
The balance between the alternating elements isn’t quite right – sections from Mhairi’s contemporary diary seem to get shorter as the novel goes along, such that it feels like there’s not enough narrative to anchor the book. Faced with yet more Scots poetry and vocabulary lists, or passages from Mhairi’s dry biography, it’s mighty tempting to skim.
That’s a shame, as the novel contains some truly lovely writing, particularly in McWatt’s nature observations:
In July and August, on rare days of startling and sustained heat, dragonflies as blue as the cloudless skies shimmer over cushions of moss by the burn while the midges, who abhor direct sunlight, are nowhere to be seen. Out to sea, somnolent groups of whales pass like cortèges of cruise ships and around them dolphins and porpoises joyously arc and dip as if stitching the ocean’s silken canopy of turquoise, gentian and cobalt.
For centuries male Fascaradians have sailed in the autumn, at the time of the ripe barley and the fruiting buckthorn, to hunt the plump young solan geese or gannets – the guga – near their nesting sites on the uninhabited rock pinnacles of Plodda and Grodda. No true Fascaradian can suffer vertigo since the scaling of these granite towers is done without the aid of mountaineers’ crampons or picks.
“Hame” means home in Scots – like in McWatt’s claim to fame, the folk-pop song “Hame tae Fascaray” – and themes of home and identity are strong here. The novel asks to what extent identity is bound up with a particular country and language, and whether we can craft our own selves. Must the place you come from always be the same as the home you choose? I could relate to Mhairi’s feeling that there’s nowhere she belongs, whether she’s in the bustle of New York or “marooned on a patch of damp peat floating in the North Sea.”
Although the blend of elements initially made me think that this would resemble A.S. Byatt’s Possession, it’s actually more like Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, which similarly stars a scholar who’s a single parent to a precocious daughter. In places I was also reminded of the work of Scarlett Thomas, Sara Maitland and Sarah Moss, and there’s even an echo of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks in the inventories of dialect words.
If you’ve done much traveling in Scotland, an added pleasure of the novel is trying to spot places you’ve been. (I thought I could see traces of Stromness, Orkney; indeed, McWatt reminded me most of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown.) The comprehensive, archival approach didn’t completely win me over, but I was impressed by the book’s scope and its affectionate portrait of a beloved country. McAfee is of Scots-Irish parentage herself, and you can tell this is a true labor of love, and a cogent tribute.
Hame was published by Harvill Secker on February 9th. With thanks to Anna Redman for sending a free copy for review.
I was accidentally sent two copies of Hame, so I am giving one away to a reader. Alas, this giveaway will have to be UK-only – the book is a hardback of nearly 600 pages, so would be prohibitively expensive to send abroad.
If you’re interested in winning a copy, simply leave a comment to that effect below. The competition will be open through the end of Friday the 17th and I will choose a winner at random on Saturday the 18th, to be announced via the comments and a personal e-mail.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: The Pickwick Papers was a Victorian publishing phenomenon. Originally envisioned as a series of sporting tales to accompany Robert Seymour’s engravings in a monthly magazine, the story soon took on a life of its own. Debut novelist Jarvis believes that a conspiracy between Dickens and his publishers covered up two key facts: Pickwick was primarily Seymour’s creation, and Dickens’s brash attempt to take it over was the impetus for Seymour’s suicide in 1836. At 800+ pages, this novel is chock-full of digressions – some amusing, others seemingly irrelevant. Jarvis started the project with the ambition of reading everything ever written about Pickwick. The results are exhaustive…but also a little exhausting.
Coastlines by Patrick Barkham: In his third nature book, Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham blends science, history, and biography as he travels sections of the British coast protected through Enterprise Neptune, a National Trust campaign celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His structural approach is unconventional: neither chronological nor geographical, but thematic. In sections on childhood, war, work, art, and faith, he highlights the many practical and metaphorical roles the coast has played in the British story. The choices of location often feel arbitrary and the themes are not quite strong enough to pull the book together, but Barkham succeeds in evoking the mysterious grandeur of the coast.
Two Lives by Sarah Bourne (& interview): A car accident causes Emma and Loretta’s lives to be intertwined in surprising ways as they negotiate loss, domestic violence and motherhood. There’s a great dynamic between these characters: Loretta vicariously relives her own experience of pregnancy through Emma. As time moves on, their relationship is more like Barbara and Sheba’s in Notes on a Scandal; secrets provoke a tacit power struggle. For a short book, it’s filled with heavy social issues. It loses points for poor cover design as well as frequent typos. All the same, this is a compelling story built around likeable main characters. It does what fiction does best: exploring the small moments that can change lives for good.
Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack: “Geography begins at the only point of which we can be certain. It begins inside. And from there, from inside, rises a single question: where am I?” Tallack muses. This is a beautifully introspective book about the search for home and identity amidst the changes of time and the trappings of place. The goal of traveling across cold northern places makes it reminiscent of Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum. However, a more telling comparison is with George Mackay Brown, chronicler of the Orkney Islands; like Brown, Tallack is interested in islands, both literally and metaphorically, as places of both isolation and authentic community.
Shiny New Books
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Sure to be one of the books of the year, if not the decade. Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. The reading experience might have been unbearable due to his suffering, but Yanagihara’s skill keeps you reading: the narration is matter-of-fact and revelation of Jude’s past is incremental, so distressing flashbacks are punctuated with more innocuous events. There is nothing ‘little’ about this book or the life portrayed. The novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living. Among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself. Yanagihara has instantly shot to literary greatness; this is Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize-winning material.
BookTrib: A preview of the PBS broadcast of Poldark, which aired on BBC earlier this year.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads (the rating is below each description).
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a gritty contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. Lish’s post-9/11 New York City is less melting pot than Boschian hell, a violent abyss lubricated with the sweat of illegal immigrants. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Full review in August 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Housebreaking by Dan Pope: This tightly crafted novel of adultery in dysfunctional suburbia is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children or the movie Far from Heaven, but with less memorable characters and storyline overall. The strategy of revisiting the same events of the late summer and fall of 2007 from different characters’ perspectives makes it feel slightly repetitive and claustrophobic.
In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi: In November 2007 Joseph Luzzi’s wife Katherine was in a fatal car accident; she had been eight and a half months’ pregnant, so within one day he entered “the wild uncharted terrain of being a single father and widower.” For several years Luzzi disengaged from fatherhood, throwing himself into his work – teaching Italian at Bard College, editing the proofs for a forthcoming book – while his mother did the hard work of childrearing. As Virgil was to Dante, Dante is to Luzzi: a guide through the hell of loss and into a vita nuova as he starts a new life with his daughter Isabel and, later, his second wife.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert: Gilbert sets herself up as a layman’s creativity guru much like Anne Lamott does with Bird by Bird or Stephen King with On Writing. This is based on Gilbert’s TED talks, and it reads very much like a self-help pep talk, with short chapters, lots of anecdotes, and buzz words to latch onto. Her central tenet is “You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.” The voice and message are similar to Rob Bell’s in the field of contemporary theology: reminding readers that what is too precious for words should, perhaps paradoxically, be held loosely with open hands. Releases September 22nd.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor: Emily Dickinson’s Amherst is an inviting setting, and the alternating first-person voices of Emily and the family’s Irish maid, Ada Concannon, are both well realized. However, the plot soon gets mired in the melodrama of a wrong done to Ada in the Dickinson household, which results in a crisis that – you guessed it – requires the reclusive Emily to leave the house. After reading, I remained greedy for more of Emily’s inner life and poetry.
Malignant Metaphor by Alanna Mitchell: A Canadian science journalist counters three misleading adjectives often applied to cancer: inevitable, preventable, and deserved. She personalizes her quest for knowledge through two family experiences. First her brother-in-law, having already survived prostate cancer, was diagnosed with untreatable stage III melanoma. Later Mitchell’s daughter had a thyroid cancer scare. In both cases, things turned out better than expected – proof that cancer is not a death sentence. Releases September 15th.
A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan: A sweet, funny debut novel about a woman who tries to juggle all the elements of a happy life: finding the perfect job for a modern book-lover…but also being a good mother to her three children, supporting her husband after he loses his job at a law firm, and helping her mother care for her father as he suffers a relapse of throat cancer. It succeeds because its female first-person voice is immediately engaging. You like Alice and root for her. Releases August 25th.
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert: Much has been made of Walbert’s “Impressionistic” style. There is some beautiful writing here for sure, but I think it would lend itself better to short stories as there is not enough plot or character continuity to latch onto. Essentially the novel is about a set of New Yorkers in a Chelsea brownstone (chiefly Marie, an old woman who came to America from France after World War II) and their disparate memories and experiences.