Three novels that range in tone from carnal allegorical excess to quiet, bittersweet reflection via low-key menace; and essays about keeping the faith in the most turbulent of times.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Rachel’s body and mommy issues are major and intertwined: she takes calorie counting and exercise to an extreme, and her therapist has suggested that she take a 90-day break from contact with her overbearing mother. Her workdays at a Hollywood talent management agency are punctuated by carefully regimented meals, one of them a 16-ounce serving of fat-free frozen yogurt from a shop run by Orthodox Jews. One day it’s not the usual teenage boy behind the counter, but his overweight older sister, Miriam. Miriam makes Rachel elaborate sundaes instead of her usual abstemious cups and Rachel lets herself eat them even though it throws her whole diet off. She realizes she’s attracted to Miriam, who comes to fill the bisexual Rachel’s fantasies, and they strike up a tentative relationship over Chinese food and classic film dates as well as Shabbat dinners at Miriam’s family home.
If you’re familiar with The Pisces, Broder’s Women’s Prize-longlisted debut, you should recognize the pattern here: a deep exploration of wish fulfilment and psychological roles, wrapped up in a sarcastic and sexually explicit narrative. Fat becomes not something to fear but a source of comfort; desire for food and for the female body go hand in hand. Rachel says, “It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”
With the help of her therapist, a rabbi that appears in her dreams, and the recurring metaphor of the golem, Rachel starts to grasp the necessity of mothering herself and becoming the shaper of her own life. I was uneasy that Miriam, like Theo in The Pisces, might come to feel more instrumental than real, but overall this was an enjoyable novel that brings together its disparate subjects convincingly. (But is it hot or smutty? You tell me.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
At a glance, the cover for Fuller’s fourth novel seems to host a riot of luscious flowers and fruit, but look closer and you’ll see the daisies are withering and the grapes rotting; there’s a worm exiting the apple and flies are overseeing the decomposition. Just as the image slowly reveals signs of decay, Fuller’s novel gradually unveils the drawbacks of its secluded village setting. Jeanie and Julius Seeder, 51-year-old twins, lived with their mother, Dot, until she was felled by a stroke. They’d always been content with a circumscribed, self-sufficient existence, but now their whole way of life is called into question. Their mother’s rent-free arrangement with the landowners, the Rawsons, falls through, and the cash they keep in a biscuit tin in the cottage comes nowhere close to covering her debts, let alone a funeral.
During the Zoom book launch event, Fuller confessed that she’s “incapable of writing a happy novel,” so consider that your warning of how bleak things will get for her protagonists – though by the end there are pinpricks of returning hope. Before then, though, readers navigate an unrelenting spiral of rural poverty and bad luck, exacerbated by illiteracy and the greed and unkindness of others. One of Fuller’s strengths is creating atmosphere, and there are many images and details here that build the picture of isolation and pathos, such as a piano marooned halfway to a derelict caravan along a forest track and Jeanie having to count pennies so carefully that she must choose between toilet paper and dish soap at the shop.
Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional North Wessex Downs village not far from where I live. I loved spotting references to local places and to folk music – Jeanie and Julius might not have book smarts or successful careers, but they inherited Dot’s love of music and when they pick up a fiddle and guitar they tune in to the ancient magic of storytelling. Much of the novel is from Jeanie’s perspective and she makes for an out-of-the-ordinary yet relatable POV character. I found the novel heavy on exposition, which somewhat slowed my progress through it, but it’s comparable to Fuller’s other work in that it focuses on family secrets, unusual states of mind, and threatening situations. She’s rapidly become one of my favourite contemporary novelists, and I’d recommend this to you if you’ve liked her other work or Fiona Mozley’s Elmet.
With thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for the proof copy for review.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott
These are Lamott’s best new essays (if you don’t count Small Victories, which reprinted some of her greatest hits) in nearly a decade. The book is a fitting follow-up to 2018’s Almost Everything in that it tackles the same central theme: how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst.
One key thing that has changed in Lamott’s life since her last book is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. “How’s married life?” people can’t seem to resist asking her. In thinking of marriage she writes about love and friendship, constancy and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Her neurotic nature flares up every now and again, but Neal helps to talk her down. Fragments of her early family life come back as she considers all her parents were up against and concludes that they did their best (“How paltry and blocked our family love was, how narrow the bandwidth of my parents’ spiritual lives”).
Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time for her, whether it’s a variety show that feels like it will never end, a four-day power cut in California, the kitten inexplicably going missing, or young people taking to the streets to protest about the climate crisis they’re inheriting. A short postscript entitled “Covid College” gives thanks for “the blessings of COVID: we became more reflective, more contemplative.”
The prose and anecdotes feel fresher here than in several of the author’s other recent books. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle. Some of these essays will be well worth rereading and deserve to become classics in the Lamott canon, especially “Soul Lather,” “Snail Hymn,” “Light Breezes,” and “One Winged Love.”
I read an advanced digital review copy via NetGalley. Available from Riverhead in the USA and SPCK in the UK.
Brood by Jackie Polzin
Polzin’s debut novel is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. As in recent autofiction by Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez, readers find observations of other people (and animals), a record of their behaviour and words; facts about the narrator herself are few and far between, though it is possible to gradually piece together a backstory for her. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of those houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.
See my full review at BookBrowse. I was also lucky enough to do an interview with the author.
I read an advanced digital review copy via Edelweiss. Available from Doubleday in the USA. To be released in the UK by Picador tomorrow, April 1st.
What recent releases can you recommend?
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 (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents.
Josh Cohen’s How to Live. What to Do, a therapist’s guide to literature, explains why this might happen:
More than one writer – the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – has advanced the exhilarating idea that each book is an infinitesimally small piece of one single, endless Book. I’ve always felt that this idea, unlikely as it might sound, makes perfect sense if you read enough novels [also nonfiction, for me]. The incidents, descriptions, phrases and images in the book you’re reading will always recall the incidents in another, and those in turn will call up the incidents in another, so that even as you’re reading one book, you’re reading countless others.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Mother‒baby swimming sessions in Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley and The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp.
- [I think it would be a spoiler to even name them, but two novels I read simultaneously in January featured 1) a marriage / close relationship between a man and a woman – even though the man is gay; and 2) a character who beat his wife and then died in a convenient ‘accident’. One was published in 1997 and the other in 2020.]
- Stomas appeared in Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger late in my 2020 reading, and then in early 2021 in Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen and Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.
- An account of the author’s experience of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan and I Miss You when I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.
- Salmon fishing takes place in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- The medical motto “see one, do one, teach one” appears in Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and Complications by Atul Gawande.
- Filipino medical staff feature in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke.
- Twin Peaks is mentioned in The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and the anthology Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health; a different essay in the latter talks about Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggle, which is a strand in the former.
- St. Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Heart by Gail Godwin and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
- The same Rachel Long poem appears in her debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love – but under different titles (“Portent” vs. “Delayed Gratification”).
- There’s a matriarch named Dot in Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.
- There’s an Alaska setting in The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- Becoming a mother is described as a baptism in Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- While reading America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, I saw Castillo mentioned in the Acknowledgements of My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long.
- Polar explorers’ demise is discussed in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Still Point by Amy Sackville.
- “Butterfingers” / “butter-fingered” is used in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- There’s a mention of someone eating paper torn from books (the horror!) in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- I was reading three pre-releases at once, each of 288 pages: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson.
- The Jewish golem myth is the overarching metaphor of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- There’s a ceremony to pay respects to those who donated their bodies for medical school dissection in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- An old woman with dementia features in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- A mother dies of cancer on Christmas Day in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- The main character does stand-up comedy in Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist.
- Winning a goldfish at a carnival in The Air Year by Caroline Bird, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, and Anna Vaught’s essay in the Trauma anthology.
- ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is mentioned in Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
- There’s a father who is non-medical hospital staff in The Push by Ashley Audrain (a cleaner) and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (a kitchen worker).
- There’s a character named Hart in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes and The Birth House by Ami McKay.
- Cannibalism is a point of reference, a major metaphor, or a (surreal) reality in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick, and Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.
- Infertility and caring for animals were two big themes shared by Brood by Jackie Polzin and Catalogue Baby by Myriam Steinberg. This became clearer when I interviewed both authors in February. Also, both women have shocks of pink hair in their publicity photos!
- A young woman works at a hotel in The Distance between Us by Maggie O’Farrell and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read late last year).
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Annabel and I did a buddy read of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; at 636 pages, it worked out to roughly 21 pages a day for the whole month of May. As I went along I summarized each day’s reading on Twitter, so to make things super-easy for myself, especially while I’m away in the States, I’ve put this post together as a collection of tweets.
There’s a lot of plot summary here, and perhaps some spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel you might not want to read too closely. I’ve set out my more general reactions in bold.
6:12 am – 1 May 2019
Kavalier & Clay, #1: Oct. 1939. Teen cousins Sam (American) and Josef (Czech) meet up in Brooklyn. Both dream of fame and fortune, Josef through drawing; Sam through any old scheme. Lots of ref’s to illusionists. Great adjectives and metaphors. Reminds me of The Invisible Bridge.
(Coincidentally, while I was at the Wellcome Collection yesterday I browsed their current exhibit on magic and illusions and there was a vintage Houdini poster advertising one of his famous escapes.)
K&C, #2: Flashback to Josef’s illusionist training under Bernard Kornblum c. 1935. Goaded by his little brother, Thomas, Josef practiced a Houdini-style underwater escape after jumping off a bridge tied up in a laundry bag. Disaster nearly ensued. Madcap and sobering all at once.
K&C, #3: Josef escapes Prague in a coffin housing a golem [animated humanoid figure made of clay]. He has a premonition of the horror to come for the Jews. Close shaves, but he makes it to Brooklyn — as we already know. Looking forward to getting back to NYC and Sam in Part II.
K&C, #4: Brief history of comics in America. Superman was a watershed in 1938. Sam pitches an idea to half-dressed boss Sheldon Anapol and shows Joe’s quick sketch of a golem-like hero. Though skeptical, he decides to give them the weekend to come up with a complete 12-page comic.
K&C, #5: Sam enlists the Glovsky brothers to work for him. We get the story of his late father, a vaudeville strong man named ‘The Mighty Molecule’. Joe breaks into locked premises with a flourish, inspiring The Escapist. Over 1/6 through! Hankering for a proper female character.
K&C, #6: Well, we got a female, Rosa Luxembourg Saks, but so far she hasn’t said a word and is only an object of the male gaze. J draws her nude for $3. My interest waned in Ch. 8 as S and J develop a backstory for The Escapist. He is to free the oppressed with his Golden Key.
K&C, #7: With 5 helpers, S&J pull all-nighters to piece together a 1st issue of Masked Men with mult. 12-pp stories. J draws the Escapist punching Hitler for the cover. Anapol makes them a good offer but wants a new cover. It’s a deal breaker; S&J walk out. Great period dialogue.
K&C, #8: Part III, Oct. 1940. Empire Comics is a phenomenon. Anapol is now so rich he bought a house in FL. Joe toils away at his violent, audacious scenes and pesters the German consulate re: his family. After some bad news, he decides to move to Montreal so he can join the RAF.
K&C, #9: Joe has 2nd thoughts re: RAF. He now seems to cross paths with every pugilistic German in the city. He stumbles on the offices of the “Aryan-American League,” breaks in and learns that he has in Carl Ebling a fan in spite of himself. Sure I’ve heard that name before…
K&C, #10: Joe is so confident a ‘bomb’ on 25th fl. of Empire State Bldg is a bluff by his nemesis, Ebling, that he chains himself to his desk to keep working. S&J realize how foolish it was to sell rights to the Escapist: they won’t make a penny on the upcoming radio adaptation.
K&C, #11: S&J attend a party at which Salvador Dali is in a breathing apparatus. Rosa reappears, saying the F word. She’s empathetic re: J’s family. J plays the hero and saves Dali when he runs out of oxygen. Rosa invites him up to see her paintings (not a euphemism — I think!).
K&C, #12 (catch-up): Rosa paints still lifes and has a room full of moths, a sort of family plague. She sets Joe’s dislocated finger and, via her work for the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, may be able to help him save his brother. They share a kiss before Sam interrupts them.
K&C, #13: Rosa’s boss agrees to help Joe if he pays 3x the regular fare for Thomas … and is the magician for his son’s bar mitzvah. Joe’s new idea for a sexy female superhero is inspired by a Luna moth. He and Sam try to bargain for a greater share of the rights to their work.
K&C, #14-15 (somehow got ahead!): 1941. S&J so rich they don’t know what to do with the $. Sharing apt. with Rosa, who keeps trying to find S a girlfriend. J is performing magic at parties; S is writing a novel, takes a radio actor auditioning for Escapist home to Shabbos dinner.
Some general thoughts at the halfway point, while I’m ahead: delighted to have a solid female character in Rosa, and more interiority with Sam in Part IV. (There are also intriguing hints about his sexuality.) Chabon is an exuberant writer; the novel could definitely be shorter.
K&C, #16: Joe is carrying around an unopened letter from his mother. At one of his bar mitzvah magician gigs, Ebling attacks him with an explosive and both incur minor injuries. The letter mysteriously disappears…
K&C, #17: Sam is a volunteer plane spotter for the war effort, giving him a vantage point high above NYC. Actor Tracy Bacon surprises him by joining him up there at 1 a.m. one day. Literal sparks fly.
K&C, #18: Sam meets Orson Welles, whose “Citizen Kane” is a huge influence on the lads’ work — they want to write for adults more than kids now. Tracy accompanies Sam to his favorite place in NYC: the site of the former World’s Fair. (Traveling tomorrow but will catch up soon.)
Sigh. I hugely lost momentum after we arrived in the States on Sunday. I’ve caught up, but (confession time) have had to do a lot of skimming. I find the dialogue a lot more engaging than the expository prose, unfortunately.
K&C #19-25: Awful news about the ship bearing Joe’s brother. Both Joe and Rosa decide to take drastic action. Carl Ebling is imprisoned for 12 years for the bar mitzvah bombing. J is stationed near the Antarctic as a radioman. JUMP to 1954, with S raising a 12yo kid named Tommy.
K&C, #26: We realize Sam and Rosa have formed an unusual family with her child Tommy, who’s learning magic tricks from Joe, who makes a failed jump…
K&C wrap-up: Joe’s living in the Empire State Building, writing a novel about a golem. Anapol kills off the Escapist. In ’54, Sam appears at a televised hearing about whether comic books create delinquents. He decides to start over in CA, leaving Joe, Rosa and Tommy a family of 3
K&C wrap-up (cont.): I did occasional skimming starting at ~p. 120 and mostly skimmed from p. 400 onwards, so I’ve marked the whole thing as ‘skimmed’ rather than ‘read’. Slightly disappointed with myself for lacking staying power, but I do think the book overlong.
The action should have been condensed, rather than sprawling over 15 years. I often lost patience with the expository prose and wanted more scenes and dialogue. It took too long for Rosa to appear, and too long to get initiated into Sam’s private life.
However, Chabon does have some wonderful turns of phrase. Here’s a few faves. “The view out the windows was pure cloud bank, a gray woolen sock pulled down over the top of the building.”
“Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom.”
“Sammy felt that he was standing on the border of something wonderful, a land where wild cataracts of money and the racing river of his own imagination would, at last, lift his makeshift little raft and carry it out to the boundless freedom of the open sea.”
My favorite passage of all: “Dinner was a fur muff, a dozen clothespins, and some old dish towels boiled up with carrots. The fact that the meal was served with a bottle of prepared horseradish enabled Sammy to conclude that it was intended to pass for braised short ribs of beef”
I also discovered that Chabon coined a word in the novel: “aetataureate,” meaning related to a golden age. It’s a good indication of the overall tone.
The other doorstopper I finished reading this month was Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge. I had heard about this Unbound release before, but my interest was redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize. Although I was initially intimidated by the heft of the 600+-page hardback that came through my door for review, I found that I could easily settle into the rhythm and – provided I had no distractions – read 40 or 50 pages of it at a sitting.
As an elderly woman in Gloucestershire in the 1880s, Mary Ann Sate looks back at the events of the 1820s and 1830s, a time of social turmoil and upheaval in the family for whom she worked as a servant. Writing is a compulsion and a form of confession for her. The book has no punctuation, not even apostrophes, and biblical allusions, spelling errors, archaisms and local pronunciation (such as “winder” for window and “zummer” for summer) make it feel absolutely true to the time period and to the narrator’s semi-literate status.
There are no rhymes in this free verse epic, but occasionally Mary Ann comes out with some alliteration, perhaps incidental, or particularly poetic lines (“The road ahead unravel / Like a spool of canary thread / Taking me always away”) that testify to her gifts for storytelling and language, even though she made her living by manual labor for some seven decades.
The manner of the telling makes this a unique work of historical fiction, slightly challenging but very worthwhile. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Jane Harris’s The Observations.
Next month’s plan: The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam, passed on to me by Liz Dexter.