Tag Archives: grief

Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)

We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.

 

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)

[85 pages]

This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”

My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.

 

Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)

[52 pages]

The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.

Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.

 

Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.

As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)

[181 pages]

A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.

In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)

 

PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)

[96 pages]

Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)

 

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)

[175 pages]

August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)

 

In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.

The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (#NovNov22)

The hero of this book is Elizabeth McCracken’s mother, Natalie (1935–2018).

Is it autofiction or a bereavement memoir? Both and neither. It’s clear that the subject is her late mother, but less obvious that the first-person narrator must be McCracken or that the framework she has set up – an American writer wanders London, seeing the sights but mostly reminiscing about her mother – is other than fiction.

In August 2019, the writer rents a hotel room in Clerkenwell and plays the flaneuse around the city. Her tour takes in the London Eye, a ferry ride across the Thames from one Tate museum to another, a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and so on. London had been a favourite destination for her and her mother, their final trip together falling just three years before. McCracken is so funny on the quirks of English terminology – and cuisine:

The least appetizing words in the world concern English food: salad cream, baps, butties, carvery, goujons.

Always, though, her thoughts return to her mother, whom she describes through bare facts and apt anecdotes. A twin born with cerebral palsy. A little disabled Jewish lady with unmanageable hair. An editor and writer based at Boston University. Opinionated, outspoken, optimistic; set in her ways. Delightful and maddening in equal measure – like all of us. (“All mothers are unknowable, being a subset of human beings.”)

The writer’s parents were opposites you never would have paired up. (Her father, too, is gone now, but his death is only an aside here.) Their declines were predictably hard to forecast. The New England family home has been emptied and is now on the market; an excruciating memory resurfaces from the auction of the contents.

As well as a tribute to a beloved mother and a matter-of-fact record of dealing with ageing parents and the aftermath of loss, this is a playful cross-examination of literary genres:

I hate novels with unnamed narrators. I didn’t mean to write one.

My mother was known to say with disgust, “Oh, those people who write memoirs about the worst thing that ever happened to them!” I said it, too. Some years later a terrible thing happened to me, and there was nothing to do but to write a memoir.

That was An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about the stillbirth of her first child. As bereavement memoirs go, it’s one of the very best and still, 10 years after I read it, stands as one of my absolute favourite books, with some of the strongest last lines out there. McCracken has done it again, producing a book that, though very different in approach and style (this time reminding me most of Jenny Offill’s Weather), somehow achieves the same poignancy and earns a spot in my personal hall of fame, for the reasons you’ll see below…

 

The hero of this review is my mother, Carolyn (1947–2022).

I find it hard to believe that she’s been gone for three and a half weeks already. One week after her funeral, I was reading this book on my Kindle in London, waiting for a climate march to start. So many lines penetrated my numbness; all could pertain to my own mother:

[Of a bad time when her mother was in hospital with an infection] Those days were a dress rehearsal for my mother’s easy actual death seven years later.

My mother was a great appreciator. It was a pleasure to take her places, because she enjoyed herself so much and so audibly. That was her form of gratitude.

My mother all by herself was a holiday, very good at buying presents and exceptional at receiving them.

Quirky, somebody once called my mother. What a colossally condescending word: I hate it. It means you’ve decided that you don’t have to take that person seriously.

My mother’s last illness was a brain aneurysm.

The dead have no privacy left, is what I’ve decided.

The adrenaline of a busy week back in the States – meeting up with family members, writing and delivering a eulogy, packing up most of her belongings, writing thank-you notes, starting on paperwork (“sadmin”) – has long worn off and I’m back into my routines of work and volunteering and trying to make our house habitable as winter sets in. It would be easy to feel as if that middle-of-the-night phone call in late October, and everything that followed, was merely a vivid, horribly extended dream and that tomorrow she’ll pop back up in my inbox with some everyday gossip.

Reminders of her are everywhere if I look. Clothes she gave me, or I inherited from her, or she sent me the money to buy; a box of extra-strong Earl Grey teabags, left over from what we handed out along with memorial cards at the visitation; her well-worn Bible and delicate gold watch; the five boxes of journals in my sister’s basement – 150 volumes each carefully labelled with a number and date range. I have the first few and the last, incomplete one here with me now. What a trove of family stories, precious or painful, await me when I’m strong enough to read them.

With Thanksgiving coming up tomorrow – a whole holiday devoted to gratitude! nothing could more perfectly suit my mother – I’m grateful for all of those mementoes, and for the books that are getting me through. Starting with this one. [192 pages] (Read via Edelweiss)

Six Degrees of Separation: From Notes on a Scandal to Belzhar

This month we begin with Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. I remember reading it at around the time the excellent film came out; I bet I’d get more out of it on a reread. (See Kate’s opening post.)

#1 Heller’s novel came to mind as I was reading The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, edited by Valeria Luiselli. In the story “Clean Teen” by Francisco González, a junior high student who lives with his grandmother in Arizona has an affair with his English teacher, who’s unhappily married to a cop. These situations never end well, do they?

 

#2 I’ve not read anything by Luiselli, but the book of hers that most intrigues me is The Story of My Teeth.

 

#3 Speaking of teeth, Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a comic novel about a dentist who falls victim to online identity theft.

 

#4 That novel won Ferris a Dylan Thomas Prize, as did Grief Is the Thing with Feathers for Max Porter.

 

#5 Porter’s creative response to bereavement draws on various forebears, including the poetry collection Crow by Ted Hughes.

 

#6 Most of you will know that Hughes was married to Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar. I’m using that as my half-step to get to one of the books I’m currently reading, Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar. We’re reading this YA novel for book club this week as Wolitzer is a reliable author for us.

The premise: troubled teens are sent to a Vermont boarding school. Jam is one of five chosen for a special literature seminar that each year focuses on just one author. This year it’s Plath. When writing in their journals, the teens find that they are transported back to the scene of their trauma and can be with their lost loved ones, or be their undamaged selves, once again. They call that magical space Belzhar. I’ll plan to review this one in full in the near future.

 

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting book is the classic cookbook The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver.

Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?

20 Books of Summer, 8–10: Marram, Orchid Summer, and Bonsai

Halfway through my flora-themed reading challenge with less than half of the summer left to go. However, I’m actually partway through another seven relevant reads, so I’m confident I’ll get to 20. The sticking point for me, as always, is finishing what I’ve started!

Today I have brief responses to the two nature/travel quest memoirs I took with me to the Outer Hebrides, plus a forthcoming Chilean novella about how a relationship is to be memorialized.

 

Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk by Leonie Charlton (2020)

I think I’d already downloaded this to my Kindle when I saw Charlton interviewed by the Bookshop Band on their breakfast-time variety show during the 2020 online Wigtown Book Festival. In 2017, Charlton and her friend Shuna undertook a three-week pony trek through the Outer Hebrides. Like many, they worked their way south to north, starting at Barra and finishing on Lewis (we travelled in the opposite direction on our recent trip).

Marram grass on a Benbecula beach.

Although it was a low-key fundraising project for her daughter’s traditional music school, for Charlton there was another underlying reason. Her difficult mother, a jewellery maker, had died of brain cancer seven years before, and she had the idea of leaving beads from her mum’s collection (she’d actually nicknamed her daughter “Beady,” though for her eyes) along the route to lay her and their complicated relationship to rest. As one of her mother’s friends put it, “She was a nightmare, and wonderful, and totally impossible.”

I enjoyed the blend of topics – the amazing scenery, the rigours of the trail, the kindness of acquaintances and strangers who gave them places to camp and graze the ponies, and painful memories – and probably got more out of it because I was reading on location. Her regrets about her mother formed a larger part of the book than expected, but that wasn’t a problem for me; you might steer clear if this would be triggering, though. (Read via NetGalley)

 

Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by Jon Dunn (2018)

Dunn saw all but one of Britain’s native species of orchid (51–55, depending on how you count; subspecies are still being debated) between the spring and autumn of 2016; only the ghost orchid eluded him. He alternates between his whistlestop travels, the backstory to his nature obsession, and the historical and cultural associations with orchids. “I was rapidly learning that orchids exert an influence unlike any other plant upon those who fall under their spell, he writes” (in that vein, I also recommend Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief).

I most enjoyed the chapters set in North Uist – where he goes to find the Hebridean marsh orchid – and his adopted home of Shetland; it’s always fun to read about somewhere I am or have been before (also including Lindisfarne). The number-driven quest seems like a peculiarly male undertaking, e.g. the similar The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham, and orchids in particular are surrounded by secrecy – you have to be in the know to locate rarities, which often seem to be in roadside ditches. Dunn evades potential accusations of elitism or machismo, though, by recounting vulnerable moments: when he inadvertently strayed onto a golf course and got verbally abused; when some lads stopped their car to harass him.

A marsh orchid at Balranald nature reserve, North Uist.

In general, this is denser with information than all but the keenest amateur botanists need, so I didn’t engage with it as much as his book about hummingbirds, The Glitter in the Green, but Dunn is a top-class nature and travel writer who really brings places and species to life on the page through his enthusiastic descriptions. Still, I wish this could have been illustrated with colour plates, as the author is an equally accomplished photographer. (Public library)

 

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (2006; 2022)

[Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell]

“In Emilia and Julio’s story … there are more omissions than lies, and fewer omissions than truths”

These college students’ bond is primarily physical, with an overlay of intellectual pretentiousness: they read to each other from the likes of Proust before they go to bed. Zambra, a Chilean poet and fiction writer, zooms in and out to spotlight each one’s other connections with friends and lovers and presage how the past will lead to separate futures. Already we see Julio thinking about how this time-limited relationship will be remembered in memory and in writing. The plot of a story Zambra references in this allusion-heavy work, “Tantalia” by Macedonio Fernández, provides the title: a couple buy a small plant to signify their love, but realize that maybe wasn’t a great idea given that plants can die.

Tending a bonsai is like writing, thinks Julio. Writing is like tending a bonsai, Julio thinks.

At scarcely 60 pages, with plenty of blank space between sections, this feels most like a short story. Bonsai symbolism aside, I didn’t find much to latch onto. Zambra is playing literary games here – “Let’s say her name is or was Emilia and that his name is, was, and will be Julio,” he writes in the first paragraph – and indulging an appetite for metafiction. Drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of creation made this feel generic and soulless, like the author wasn’t committed to or fond of his characters and their story. This wasn’t my cup of tea, but fans of Open Water and Normal People who also love spare writing in translation might enjoy it.

With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review. Bonsai will be published on August 17th.

Truth Is Stranger than Fiction: The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

“The island exerted a mesmeric pull. She had felt the magic of it all her life, but it was a magic that stayed on the island. You couldn’t take it with you.”

~MILD SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~

One of my reading selections for our recent trip to the Outer Hebrides was The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, which is set on a lightly fictionalized version of North Uist. It’s the summer of 1979 and the recently bereaved Fleming family is on the way from London to the island for their usual summer holiday. This year everything looks different. The patriarch, Nicky, had a fatal fall from a roof in Bonn, where he was stationed as a diplomat. Whether it was an accident or suicide is yet to be determined.

Now it’s just Letitia and the three children. Georgie is awaiting exam results and university offers. Jamie is the youngest and has an earnest, innocent, literal mind (I believe I first came across the novel in connection to my interest in depictions of autism, and I assume he is meant to be on the spectrum). Alba, smack in the middle, acts out via snarky comments as well as shoplifting and tormenting her brother. The locals look out for each of the family members and make allowances for the strange things they do because of grief.

In the meantime, there’s an escaped grizzly bear on the loose in the islands. The chapters rotate through the main characters’ perspectives and include short imaginings of the bear’s journey. I found it hard to take these seriously – could an animal really be in awe of the Northern Lights? – especially when Pollen begins to suggest telepathic communication occurring between Jamie and the bear.

I was a third of the way into the novel before I learned that the bear subplot was based on a true story – my husband saw a sidebar about it in the guidebook. I’d had no idea! Hercules the trained bear starred in films and commercials. In 1980, while filming an ad for Andrex, he slipped his rope and remained on the run for several weeks despite a military search, straying 20 miles and losing half his body weight before he was tranquillized and returned to his owner. We made the pilgrimage to his burial site in Langass Woodland.

Pollen herself spent childhood summers in the Outer Hebrides and remembered the buzz about the hunt for Hercules. This plus the recent death of their father makes it a pivotal summer for all three children. Though in general I appreciated the descriptions of the island, and liked the character interactions and Jamie’s guilelessness and gumption, I felt uncomfortable with his portrayal. I didn’t think it realistic for an 11-year-old to not understand the fact of death; it seemed almost offensive to suggest that, because he’s on the autism spectrum, he wouldn’t understand euphemisms about loss. The sequence where he goes looking for “Heaven” is pretty excruciating.

Add that to the unlikelihood of Jamie’s participation in the bear’s discovery and an unnecessary conspiracy element about Nicky’s death and this novel didn’t live up to its potential for me. I’d read one other book by Pollen, the memoir Meet Me in the In-Between, but won’t venture further into her work. Still, this was an interesting curio. (Public library)

[I thought about including this (and Sarah Moss’s Night Waking) in my flora-themed 20 Books of Summer because of the author’s surname, but I think I’ll make my 20 without stretching that far!]

Three on a Theme (and #ReadIndies): Nonfiction I Sponsored Last Year

Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.

Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:

This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist

A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.

This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.

Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)

 

Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills

I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”

The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.

As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)

Four favourites:

  • “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
  • “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
  • “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
  • “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.

 

Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury

It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.

For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.

I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)

Five favourites:

  • “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
  • “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
  • “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
  • “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
  • My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)

“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”

Stay strong, trees!

 

Sponsored any books, or read any from indie publishers, recently?

January Releases II: Nick Blackburn, Wendy Mitchell & Padraig Regan

The January new releases continue! I’ll have a final batch of three tomorrow. For today, I have an all-over-the-place meditation masquerading as a bereavement memoir, an insider’s look at what daily life with dementia is like, and a nonbinary poet’s debut.

 

The Reactor: A Book about Grief and Repair by Nick Blackburn

I’ll read any bereavement memoir going, and the cover commendations from Olivia Laing and Helen Macdonald made this seem like a sure bet. Unfortunately, this is not a bereavement memoir but an exercise in self-pity and free association. The book opens two weeks after Blackburn’s father’s death – “You have died but it’s fine, Dad.” – and proceeds in titled fragments of one line to a few paragraphs. Blackburn sometimes addresses his late father directly, but more often the “you” is himself. He becomes obsessed with the Chernobyl disaster (even travelling to Belarus), which provides the overriding, and overstretched, title metaphor – “the workings of grief are unconscious, invisible. Like radiation.”

From here the author indulges in pop culture references and word association: Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows, Joni Mitchell’s music, Ingmar Bergman’s films, Salvador Dalí’s paintings and so on. These I at least recognized; there were plenty of other random allusions that meant nothing to me. All of this feels obfuscating, as if Blackburn is just keeping busy: moving physically and mentally to distract from his own feelings. A therapist focusing on LGBT issues, he surely recognizes his own strategy here. This seems like a diary you’d keep in a bedside drawer (there’s also the annoyance of no proper italicization or quotation marks for works of art), not something you’d try to get published as a bereavement memoir.

The bigger problem is there is no real attempt to convey a sense of his father. It would be instructive to go back and count how many pages actually mention his father. One page on his death; a couple fleeting mentions of his mental illness being treated with ECT and lithium. Most revealing of all, ironically, is the text of a postcard he wrote to his mother on a 1963 school trip to Austria. “I want to tell you more about my father, but honestly I feel like I hardly knew him. There was always his body and that was enough,” Blackburn writes. Weaselling out of his one task – to recreate his father for readers – made this an affected dud.

With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.

 

What I Wish People Knew About Dementia: From Someone Who Knows by Wendy Mitchell 

I loved Mitchell’s first book, Somebody I Used to Know. She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 58 in 2014. This follow-up, too, was co-written with Anna Wharton (they have each written interesting articles on their collaboration process, here and here). Whereas her previous work was a straightforward memoir, this has more of a teaching focus, going point by point through the major changes dementia causes to the senses, relationships, communication, one’s reaction to one’s environment, emotions, and attitudes.

I kept shaking my head at all these effects that would never have occurred to me. You tend not to think beyond memory. Food is a major issue for Mitchell: she has to set iPad reminders to eat, and chooses the same simple meals every time. Pasta bowls work best for people with dementia as they can get confused trying to push food around a plate. She is extra sensitive to noises and may have visual and olfactory hallucinations. Sometimes she is asked to comment on dementia-friendly building design. For instance, a marble floor in a lobby looks like water and scares her, whereas clear signage and bright colours cheer up a hospital trip.

The text also includes anonymous input from her friends with dementia, and excerpts from recent academic research on what can help. Mitchell and others with Alzheimer’s often feel written off by their doctors – her diagnosis appointment was especially pessimistic – but her position is that the focus should be on what people can still do and adaptations that will improve their everyday lives. Mitchell lives alone in a small Yorkshire village and loves documenting the turning of the seasons through photographs she shares on social media. She notes that it’s important for people to live in the moment and continue finding activities that promote a flow state, a contrast to some days that pass in a brain haze.

This achieves just what it sets out to: give a picture of dementia from the inside. As it’s not a narrative, it’s probably best read in small doses, but there are some great stories along the way, like the epilogue’s account of her skydive to raise money for Young Dementia UK.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

Some Integrity by Padraig Regan

The sensual poems in this debut collection are driven by curiosity, hunger and queer desire. Flora and foods are described as teasing mystery, with cheeky detail:

I’m thinking of how mushrooms will haunt a wet log like bulbous ghosts

 

The chicken is spatchcocked & nothing

like a book, but it lies open & creases

where its spine once was.

 

For as long as it take a single drop of condensation to roll its path

down the curve of a mojito glass before it’s lost in the bare wood of the table,

everything is held // in its hall of mirrors

An unusual devotion to ampersands; an erotic response to statuary, reminiscent of Richard Scott; alternating between bold sexuality and masochism to the point of not even wanting to exist; a central essay on the Orlando nightclub shooting and videogames – the book kept surprising me. I loved the fertile imagery, and appreciated Regan’s exploration of a nonbinary identity:

Often I envy the Scandinavians for their months of sun,

unpunctuated. I think I want some kind of salad. I want to feel like a real boy, sometimes.

 

Thank you

for this chain of daisies to wear around my neck — it makes me look so pretty.

Highly recommended, especially to readers of Séan Hewitt and Stephen Sexton.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

Does one of these books appeal to you?

September Poetry & Nonfiction: Antrobus, Benning, Carey; Bowler, Lister

September is a major month for new releases. I’ve already reviewed two fiction titles that came out this month: Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty and Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’m still working through the 500+ pages of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, and hope to report back on it before too long.

Today I have poetry volumes reckoning with race and disability and with modern farming on the Canadian prairie, as well as a centuries-spanning anthology; and, in nonfiction, memoirs of living with advanced cancer and adjusting to widowhood in one’s thirties.

 

All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus

Antrobus, a British-Jamaican poet, won the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Ted Hughes Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for his first collection, The Perseverance. I reviewed it for the Folio Prize blog tour in 2019 and was in attendance at the Young Writer ceremony when he won. Its themes carry over into this second full-length work: again, he reflects on biracial identity, deafness, family divisions, and the loss of his father. Specifically, he is compelled to dive into the history of his English mother’s ancient surname, Antrobus: associated with baronets, owners of Stonehenge, painters – and slavers.

Tell me if I’m closer

to the white painter

with my name than I am

 

to the black preacher,

his hands wide to the sky,

the mahogany rot

 

of heaven. Sorry,

but you know by now

that I can’t mention trees

 

without every shade

of my family

appearing and disappearing. (from “Plantation Paint”)

Other poems explore police and prison violence against Black and deaf people, and arise from his experiences teaching poetry to students and inmates. Captions in square brackets are peppered throughout, inspired by the work of Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. These serve as counterparts to the sign language illustrations in The Perseverance. There are also unsentimental love poems written for his wife, Tabitha. This didn’t captivate me in the same way as his first book, but I always enjoy experiencing the work of contemporary poets and would recommend this to readers of Jason Allen-Paisant, Caleb Femi and Kei Miller.

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

Field Requiem by Sheri Benning

Benning employs religious language to give structure to her solemn meditations on the degraded landscape of Saskatchewan, a place where the old ways have been replaced by impersonal, industrial-scale farming. Poems are titled “Plainsong,” “Minor Doxology,” “Intercession” and “Compline.” You can hear the rhythms of psalms and the echoes of the requiem mass in her verse.

There’s a prophetic tone behind poems about animal casualties due to pesticides, with “We were warned” used as a refrain in “1 Zephaniah”:

Everything swept away.

Everything consumed. Sky bled dry

of midges. Locusts, bees, neurons frayed.

 

Antiseptic silence of canola

fields at dusk, muted

grasshopper thrum.

Alliteration pops out from the lists of crops and the prairie species their cultivation has pushed to the edge of extinction. This is deeply place based writing, with the headings of multipart poems giving coordinates. Elegies tell the stories behind the names in a local graveyard, including Ukrainian immigrants. Many of these are tragic tales of failure: “neck in the noose of profit margins and farm credit” (from “NE 10 36 22 W2ND”). Benning and her sister, Heather, who took the Ansel Adams-like black-and-white photographs that illustrate the book, toured derelict farms and abandoned homes:

pull yourself through the kitchen window,

glass shot out decades ago. Breathe the charnel reek,

the cracked-open casket of the nation’s turn-of-the-century bullshit-

promises, adipose gleam of barley and wheat. (from “SW 26 36 22 W2ND”)

I attended the online launch event last night and enjoyed hearing Benning read from the book and converse with Karen Solie about its origins. Benning’s parents were farmers up until the late 1990s, then returned to diversified farming in the late 2000s. Solie aptly referred to the book as “incantatory.” With its ecological conscience, personal engagement and liturgical sound, this is just my kind of poetry. If you’ve been thinking about the issues with land use and food production raised by the likes of Wendell Berry and James Rebanks, you shouldn’t miss it.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

100 Poets: A Little Anthology by John Carey

John Carey is among the UK’s most respected literary critics. I’ve read several of his books over the years, including his outstanding memoir, The Unexpected Professor. This anthology, a sort of follow-up to his A Little History of Poetry (2020), chooses 100 top poets and then opines on what he considers their best work. The book is organized chronologically, proceeding from Homer to Maya Angelou. Sticking mostly to English-language and American, British or Commonwealth poets (with just a handful of Continental selections, like Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke, in translation), Carey delivers mini-essays with biographical information and historical background.

There is some inconsistency in terms of the amount of context and interpretation given, however. For some poets, there may be just a line or two of text, followed by a reprinted poem (Richard Wilbur, Les Murray); for others, there are paragraphs’ worth of explanations, interspersed with excerpts (Andrew Marvell, Thomas Gray). Some choices are obvious; others are deliberately obscure (e.g., eschewing Robert Frost’s and Philip Larkin’s better-known poems in favour of “Out, Out” and “The Explosion”). The diversity is fairly low, and you can see Carey’s age in some of his introductions: “Edward Lear was gay, and felt a little sad when friends got married”; “Alfred Edward Housman was gay, and he thought it unjust that he should be made to feel guilty about something that was part of his nature.” There’s way too much First and Second World War poetry here. And can a poet really be one of the 100 greatest ever when I’ve never heard of them? (May Wedderburn Cannan, anyone?)

Unsurprisingly, I was most engaged with the pieces on Victorian and Modernist poets since those are the periods I studied at university and still love the most, but there were a few individual poems I was glad to discover, such as Ben Jonson’s “On My First Sonne,” written upon his death from bubonic plague, and Edward Thomas’s “Old Man,” as well as many I was happy to encounter again. This would be a good introduction for literature students as well as laypeople wanting to brush up on their poetry.

With thanks to Yale University Press, London for the proof copy for review.

 

Nonfiction

 

No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler

(Below is my Shelf Awareness review, reprinted with permission.)

In her bittersweet second memoir, a religion professor finds the joys and ironies in a life overshadowed by advanced cancer.

When Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer at age 35, her chances of surviving two years were just 14%. In No Cure for Being Human, her wry, touching follow-up to her 2018 memoir Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) and its associated podcast, she continues to combat unhelpful religious/self-help mantras as she ponders what to do with the extra time medical breakthroughs have given her.

After multiple surgeries, a promising immunotherapy drug trial gave Bowler hope that she would live to see her 40th birthday and her young son starting kindergarten. Working on her bucket list, she found that small moments outshined large events: on a trip to the Grand Canyon, what stood out was a chapel in the ponderosa pinewoods where she added a prayer to those plastering the walls. In the Church calendar, “Ordinary Time” is where most of life plays out, so she encourages readers to live in an “eternal present.”

The chapters function like stand-alone essays, some titled after particular truisms (like “You Only Live Once”). The book’s bittersweet tone finds the humor as well as the tragedy in a cancer diagnosis. Witty recreated dialogue and poignant scenes show the type-A author learning to let go: “I am probably replaceable,” she acknowledges, but here in the shadow of death “the mundane has begun to sparkle.” These dispatches from the “lumpy middle” of life and faith are especially recommended to fans of Anne Lamott.


(If you’ve read her previous book, Everything Happens for a Reason, you may find, as I did, that there is a little too much repetition about her diagnosis and early treatment. The essays could also probably be structured more successfully. But it’s still well worth reading.)

With thanks to Rider Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Elements: A Widowhood by Kat Lister

This story hit all too close to home to me: like Kat Lister, my sister was widowed in her thirties, her husband having endured gruelling years of treatment for brain cancer that caused seizures and memory loss. Lister’s husband, Pat Long, was a fellow journalist. Cancer was with them for the entire span of their short marriage, and infertility treatment didn’t succeed in giving them the children they longed for.

Although it moves back and forth in time, the memoir skims over the happy before and the torturous middle, mostly shining a light on the years after Pat died in 2018. Lister probes her emotional state and the ways in which she met or defied people’s expectations of a young widow. Even when mired in grief, she was able to pass as normal: to go to work, to attend social functions wearing leopard print. She writes of a return trip to Mexico, where she’d gone with Pat, and in some detail of the sexual reawakening she experienced after his death. But everyday demands could threaten to sink her even when life-or-death moments hadn’t.

Writing helped her process her feelings, and the Wellcome Library was a refuge where she met her predecessors in bereavement literature. While some of the literary points of reference are familiar (Joan Didion, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, C.S. Lewis), others are unexpected, and the overall Fire­–Water–Earth–Air structure creates thematic unity in a similar way as the constellations do in Molly Wizenberg’s The Fixed Stars. Giving shape and dignity to grief, this is a lovely, comforting read.

A favourite passage:

When I talk of my husband, I often speak of disparate worlds. Mine is inside time, his is supertemporal. I continue to age whilst my husband stays fixed in a past I am drifting further away from with every sentence that I type. And yet, like those luminous balls of plasma in the sky, we are still connected together, for all time is cyclical. I hold the elements within me.

With thanks to Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

20 Books of Summer, #12–13, BLUE: Johnson & MacMahon

Blue has been the most common colour in my themed summer reading, showing up in six out of the 20 titles. In the two books I’m reviewing today, it’s used somewhat ironically, with a YA memoir subverting its association with conventional masculinity and a Women’s Prize-longlisted novel contrasting idyllic holiday weather with the persistence of grief.

 

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson (2020)

“you sometimes can’t see yourself if you can’t see other people like you existing, thriving”

Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson knew he was different. He preferred Double-Dutch to football, called his classmates “Honeychild,” and begged for a pair of cowboy boots instead of the sneakers everyone else coveted. His effeminate ways earned the expected epithets. Even though he had plenty of LGBT precedents in his own family – a gay older half-brother, a lesbian aunt, a trans cousin – and his beloved Nanny assured him he was loved for who he was, he didn’t publicly confess his identity until he got to college and felt accepted as part of a fraternity. In fact, there are three instances in the book when, as a teenager, he’s asked directly if he’s gay and he denies it. (Do you hear a rooster?)

Johnson is a warm, earnest storyteller and deftly chooses moments when he became aware of the social disadvantages inherent to his race and sexuality. His memoir is marketed to teens, who should find a lot to relate to here, such as dealing with bullies and realizing that what you’ve been taught is comforting myth. In the “‘Honest Abe’ Lied to Me” chapter, he discovers in middle school that Lincoln didn’t actually support racial equality and questions whether landmark achievements by Black people are just conciliatory tokens – “symbolism is a threat to actual change—it’s a chance for those in power to say, ‘Look how far you have come’ rather than admitting, ‘Look how long we’ve stopped you from getting here.’”

The manifesto element of the book lies in its investigation of the intersection of Blackness and queerness. Johnson is an activist and wants queer Black kids to have positive role models. He knows he was lucky to have family support and middle-class status; many have it harder, getting thrown out and ending up homeless. Multiple chapters are devoted to his family members, some in the form of letters. The structure didn’t always feel intuitive to me, with direct address to his cousin or grandmother coming seemingly out of nowhere. The language is informal, but that doesn’t excuse “me and so-and-so” constructions or referring to “people that” instead of “who”; young adult readers need to have good grammar reinforced.

I also questioned whether the author needed to be so sexually explicit in describing his molestation at the hands of an older male cousin (he has about a zillion cousins) and losing his virginity at age 20. Then again, today’s teens are probably a lot more sexually knowledgeable than I was 20+ years ago. All in all, I wondered if Johnson is more successful as a motivational speaker than a writer. I think his occasional bravado (he closes his introduction with “This is the story of George Matthew Johnson. This is a story for us all.”) would come across better in person than in print. Still, considering I couldn’t be much further from the target audience, I found this a sweet and engaging read. (Public library)

 

Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (2020)

“Incongruous, the situations we found ourselves in. To be talking about such sorrow against the backdrop of a Mediterranean summer.”

SPOILERS in the following; otherwise it would be difficult to say anything other than that this novel is a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. When I read a synopsis, I thought it would be Sue Miller’s Monogamy with the roles reversed, but that’s because the blurb makes it sound like there were secrets in David and Mary Rose’s marriage that only emerge after her death in a plane crash. I was on the alert for something sordid and earth-shattering, but in fact this is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage.

David, a foreign correspondent on Dublin’s television news, always put his career first, his sophistication and wicked humour masking the wounds of an emotionally chilly upbringing. Mary Rose, a hospital midwife, was the perfect foil, deflating his pomposity and calling him out on any unfeeling quips. Her loving nature was the soul of their relationship. Now that’s she gone, David regrets that he didn’t take more seriously her desperation to have children, a desire he didn’t share. His voice, even flattened and numbed by grief, is a delight. For instance, here’s how he describes Irish seaside holidays: “Summer to us was freezing your arse off on a windswept beach, with a trip to the ice-cream shop if you were lucky. Of course, they never had the ice-cream you wanted.”

The novel is set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Against his friends’ advice, he’s decided to come back alone this year. Although most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here, there is also a present storyline running underneath. Initially subtle, it offers big surprises later on. These I won’t spoil; I’ll only say that David’s cynical belief that he’ll never experience happiness again is proven wrong. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated. This reminded me of Three Junes and also, to a lesser extent, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. (Public library)

 

Coming up next: Pairs of green and red titles.

 

Would you be interested in reading one of these?

Darke Matter by Rick Gekoski (Blog Tour Review)

Back in 2017, I enjoyed Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, Darke, in which curmudgeonly Dr. James Darke, a retired English teacher, literally seals himself off from the world after his wife Suzy’s death from cancer. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a sequel was released last year – how appropriate to revisit themes of grief and isolation in 2020! – and right away was reminded of the delights of his grumpy, pompous first-person narration. As the second book opens, Darke is preparing to host his daughter Lucy with her partner Sam and son Rudy for Christmas and is in a Scrooge-like mood: “In my own home, I am blessedly safe from the canvassers, beggars and importuners spreading bubonically from house to house at Yuletide.”

Soon two things happen to shatter his peace: one is an invitation to join a poetry reading club hosted by a literary associate of his late wife – but he soon realizes it’s more of a support group for bereaved spouses. The second and much more serious interruption is a knock on the door from the police, who require more information about Suzy’s death. You see, early on in this book, Darke tells us himself that he gave Suzy a “soothing drink to carry her away,” and even in the face of others’ horror he maintains two seemingly contradictory facts: that he did not want for her to die, but that he did give her a fatal concoction to ease her terrible pain.

By coincidence, I was reading a nonfiction study of assisted dying, The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart, at the same time, and I’d also read That One Patient, a collection of interviews with Dutch medical professionals, some of whom have helped terminally ill patients to commit suicide, earlier this year. It was amusing, but also touching, to see Darke becoming an unwitting spokesman for this movement. He writes a manifesto headed “Easeful Death – Do you love your dog more than your wife?” and gets help disseminating it from a journalist acquaintance. Media attention follows and a scandal erupts.

One of the joys of this pair of novels is Darke’s fondness for literary allusions. In the previous book, these were mostly to Dante and Dickens. Here, the greatest debt is to Jonathan Swift: Darke has been reading Gulliver’s Travels to his grandson at bedtime, and decides to write a pastiche sequel to entertain the boy. Gradually, this turns into a coded story by which he can explain to Rudy what might happen to his grandfather. Will Captain Gulliver be found guilty of heresy? Will he have to flee to avoid jail?

Because we only ever experience Darke’s point of view, he is something of an unreliable narrator, and because he delivers the novel’s finale via his italicized Swiftian narrative, there is some uncertainty about what actually happens to our antihero. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as the first book, but together they form a striking and witty character study. I especially appreciated how the sequel adds in a gentle note of controversy without allowing it to overtake the pleasures of the voice.

 

Darke Matter was first published in the UK by Constable in May 2020. The paperback edition came out on April 1st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

I was happy to take part in the blog tour for Darke Matter. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing.