Six Degrees of Separation: From Margaret to This Cold Heaven
This month we’re starting with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (which I have punctuated appropriately!). See Kate’s opening post. I know I read this as a child, but other Judy Blume novels were more meaningful for me since I was a tomboy and late bloomer. The only line that stays with me is the chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”
#1 Another book with a question in the title (and dominating the cover) is How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I found a hardback copy in the unofficial Little Free Library I ran in our neighborhood during the first lockdown before the public library reopened. Heti is a divisive author, but I loved Motherhood for perfectly encapsulating my situation. I think this one, too, is autofiction, and the title question is one I ask myself variations on frequently.
#2 I’ve read quite a few “How to” books, whether straightforward explanatory/self-help texts or not. Lots happened to be from the School of Life series. One I found particularly enjoyable and helpful was How to Age by Anne Karpf. She writes frankly about bodily degeneration, the pursuit of wisdom, and preparation for death. “Growth and psychological development aren’t a property of our earliest years but can continue throughout the life cycle.”
#3 Ageing is a major element in May Sarton’s journals, particularly as she moves from her seventies into her eighties and fights illnesses. I’ve read all but one of her autobiographical works now, and – while my favorite is Journal of a Solitude – the one I’ve chosen as most representative of her usual themes, including inspiration, camaraderie, the pressures of the writing life, and old age, is At Seventy.
#4 Sarton was a keen gardener, as was Derek Jarman. I learned about him in the context of nature helping people come to terms with their mortality. Modern Nature reproduces the journal the gay, HIV-positive filmmaker kept in 1989–90. Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, and the unusual garden he cultivated there, was his refuge between trips to London and further afield, and a mental sanctuary when he was marooned in the hospital.
#5 One of the first memoirs I ever read and loved was Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, about his partner Wally’s death from AIDS. This sparked my continuing interest in illness and bereavement narratives, and it was through following up Doty’s memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry, so he’s had a major influence on my taste. I’ve had Heaven’s Coast on my rereading shelf for ages, so really must get to it in 2021.
#6 Thinking of heaven, a nice loop back to Blume’s Margaret and her determination to find God … one of the finest travel books I’ve read is This Cold Heaven, about Gretel Ehrlich’s expeditions to Greenland and historical precursors who explored it. Even more than her intrepid wanderings, I was impressed by her prose, which made the icy scenery new every time. “Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight.”
A fitting final selection for this week’s properly chilly winter temperatures, too. I’ll be writing up my first snowy and/or holiday-themed reads of the year in a couple of weeks.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Recent Poetry Reads
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.
Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?
Three Books that Originated on the Radio
As the end of the year approaches and I try to get through a final handful of review books, I’m looking for ways to combine posts. It may seem like a fairly arbitrary connection, but all three of these books originated as essays or short stories that were aired on British radio. I never listen to the radio so I miss out on these projects the first time around, but I’ve been interested to note how short forms and conversational styles lend themselves to oral performance.
Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body
These 15 pieces were commissioned for the BBC Radio 3 series “A Body of Essays.” Thomas Lynch, a small-town American undertaker and wonderful, unjustly obscure writer, opens and closes the volume. In his introduction he remarks – appropriately as Christmas draws near – that “We are an incarnate species”: we experience the world only through our bodies, which are made of disparate parts that work together as a whole. This project considers single organs by turn “in hopes that by knowing the part we might better know the whole of our predicament and condition.”
Naomi Alderman, musing on the intestines, draws metaphorical connections between food, sex and death, and gives thanks that digestion and excretion are involuntary processes we don’t have to give any thought. Ned Beauman reports on misconceptions about the appendix as he frets about the odds of his bursting while he’s in America without health insurance. The late Philip Kerr describes the checkered history of the lobotomy, which used to reduce patients to a vegetative state but can now quite effectively treat epilepsy.
The pieces incorporate anatomical knowledge, medical history, current research, cultural connections, and sometimes observation of a hospital procedure. These threads are elegantly woven together, as in Patrick McGuinness’s essay on the ear, which skips between Hamlet’s father’s death, the secretive delight of mining for earwax, Beethoven’s ear trumpet, and what we know about in utero sounds.
Most authors chose a particular organ because of its importance to their own health. Christina Patterson’s acne was so bad she went to the UK’s top skin specialist for PUVA light treatments, Mark Ravenhill had his gallbladder removed in an emergency surgery, and Daljit Nagra’s asthma led his parents to engage Sikh faith healers for his lungs. Two of my favorite chapters were by William Fiennes, whose extreme Crohn’s disease caused him to have a colostomy bag for two years in his early twenties, and poet Kayo Chingonyi, who has always been ashamed to admit that his parents both died of complications of HIV in Zambia. Such personal connections add poignancy to what could have been information dumps.
As is usual for essay collections, my interest varied somewhat. I had my hopes too high so was disappointed with a scattered piece on the kidneys. But the overall quality is terrific. If you enjoy medical reads to any extent, I recommend this as a bedside book to read occasionally.
Some favorite lines:
“It’s a strange and shifting thing – this sense I have that I am my body, of which some bits are essential and some expendable.” (Mark Ravenhill)
“There are things we only think about when they go wrong: the fan belt, the combi boiler, the bowel.” (William Fiennes)
“Like most of us, I take my body for granted. I live in the most complex, intricate machine and as long as it wakes up in the morning, and goes to bed at night, I am uninterested in its inner workings.” (Chibundu Onuzo, “Thyroid”)
Beneath the Skin was published by the Wellcome Collection imprint of Profile Books on October 25th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
In Mid-Air by Adam Gopnik
New Yorker writer Gopnik contributed to BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View for over a decade. These essays date from 2012 to 2017 and are grouped into three loosely thematic sections on family, culture and politics. Gopnik self-deprecatingly sees himself as “offering measured ambivalences on everything.” As an American who was raised in Canada and has lived in Paris and spent significant time in London, he has a refreshingly cosmopolitan outlook and can appreciate the nuances in different countries’ identities. At the same time, he brings out what’s universal: being annoying to one’s teenage children, gauging the passing of time by family members’ changes, the desire to die with dignity (remembering his father-in-law’s death at age 95), and lessons in a happy marriage from Charles and Emma Darwin – he boils it down to lust, laughter and loyalty.
During the weeks that I spent with these essays I was frequently reminded of Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye, which casts a similarly twinkling eye over the absurdities of modern life and the aging body. Gopnik endures shingles and shrugs over his funny last name (“drunken lout” in Russian) and short stature. He mostly ignores Twitter and decries our dependence on smartphones. As he’s never learned to drive, he’s amused by the idea of self-driving cars.
My favorite pieces were on significantly more trivial matters, though: the irony of famous Christmas songs being written by Jews, and a satire on society’s addiction to DVD box sets. Other arts references vary from the Beatles and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to Cubism and literary festivals. It’s a quirky blend of high and low culture here. Bizarrely, Gopnik has recently written an oratorio on Alan Turing and a musical about a New York City restaurant.
The author is an unabashed liberal who prizes pluralism above all else but warns how fragile it is. In the final section he prophesies catastrophe under Trump and, afterwards, can only say that at least his election puts lesser issues into perspective. I valued the diagnosis of American insularity and British inwardness – this particular essay was written in 2013 but seems all the more relevant post-Brexit. This was my fifth book from Gopnik. While I didn’t engage with every essay and would have liked them to be chronological so there was a mix of topics all the way through, it was a pleasant and often thought-provoking read.
Some favorite lines:
“Watching the people we love die bit by bit is the hardest thing life demands until we recall that watching the people we love die bit by bit is in a certain sense what life simply is. It just usually takes more time for the bits to go by.”
“We should never believe that people who differ from us about how we ought to spend public money want to commit genocide or end democracy, and we should stop ourselves from saying so, even in the pixellated heat of internet argument. But when we see the three serpents of militarism, nationalism and hatred of difference we should never be afraid to call them out, loudly, by name”
In Mid-Air was published by riverrun, a new Quercus imprint, on October 18th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Turbulence by David Szalay
These 12 linked short stories, commissioned for BBC Radio 4, focus on travel and interconnectedness. Each is headed by a shorthand route from one airport to another, and at the destination we set out with a new main character who has crossed paths with the previous one. For instance, in “YYZ – SEA” the writer Marion Mackenzie has to cancel a scheduled interview when her daughter Annie goes into labor. There’s bad news about the baby, and when Marion steps away from the hospital to get Annie a few necessaries from a supermarket and is approached by a pair of kind fans, one of whom teaches Marion’s work back in Hong Kong, she’s overcome at the moment of grace-filled connection. In the next story we journey back to Hong Kong with the teacher, Jackie, and enter into her dilemma over whether to stay with her husband or leave him for the doctor she’s been having an affair with.
As he ushers readers around the world, Szalay invites us to marvel at how quickly life changes and how – improbable as it may seem – we can have a real impact on people we may only meet once. There’s a strong contrast between impersonal and intimate spaces: airplane cabins and hotel rooms versus the private places where relationships start or end. The title applies to the characters’ tumultuous lives as much as to the flight conditions. They experience illness, infidelity, domestic violence, homophobia and more, but they don’t stay mired in their situations; there’s always a sense of motion and possibility, that things will change one way or another.
My favorite story was “DOH – BUD,” in which Ursula goes to visit her daughter Miri and gains a new appreciation for Miri’s fiancé, Moussa, a Syrian refugee. I also liked how the book goes full circle, with the family from the final story overlapping with that of the first. Though a few of the individual stories are forgettable, I enjoyed this more than Szalay’s Booker-shortlisted All that Man Is, another globe-trotting set of linked stories.
Like Beneath the Skin, this acknowledges the many parts making up the whole of humanity; like In Mid-Air, it encourages a diversity of opinion and experience rather than narrow-mindedness. Maybe the three books had more in common than I first thought?
A favorite line:
“In fact it was hard to understand quite what an insignificant speck this aeroplane was, in terms of the size of the ocean it was flying over, in terms of the quantity of emptiness which surrounded it on all sides.”
Turbulence is published by Jonathan Cape today, December 6th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Polishing off the Wellcome Prize Shortlist: How to Survive a Plague
Spanning from the summer of 1981, when the New York Times first broke the story about a rare cancer observed in homosexuals, to 1996, when protease inhibitors came onto the market and offered HIV sufferers a new lease on life, How to Survive a Plague is a comprehensive history of the AIDS crisis. Especially in its early chapters, it reads like a fascinating medical mystery – though we already know the answers, the book skillfully captures the ignorance and terror that reigned for so many years as people sought to understand what Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID, the original name for AIDS) was and how it was transmitted.
As a journalist and a gay man, David France was right in the thick of the crisis when he moved to Manhattan in 1981. He lost friends and lovers to AIDS, and had his own health scares, too – once, on assignment in war-torn Central America, he developed what he thought was a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion but turned out to be a sign of amoebic infection.
Throughout the 1980s the number of HIV cases roughly doubled each year; media coverage was intense but often alarmist. Undertakers refused to deal with AIDS victims, and Jerry Falwell and his ilk spoke of a gay conspiracy taking over America. Far too slowly, research advanced to cope with the crisis. France gives details of the medical trials and presidential commissions that kept AIDS at the forefront of the national conscience, generally thanks to patient advocacy groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and PWA (People with AIDS – more proactive terminology than victims or patients).
The book reminds me most of Sheri Fink’s Five Days in Memorial, another social history with a vast scope and a large cast of characters; here there are about 25 doctors, researchers and activists, many of them based in New York City, who keep recurring. For instance, there’s Joe Sonnabend, an infectious diseases expert who specialized in treating gay men for venereal diseases; Larry Kramer, who wrote an angry novel about fellow homosexuals yet tried to lead the response; and Richard Berkowitz, a former sex worker who co-wrote How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, a safe sex guide that encouraged a surge in condom use.
I rather underestimated the reading load the Wellcome shortlist would create for me; I ended up getting bogged down in this 500+-page book’s level of detail and only succeeded in skimming it. I think that for someone without a personal stake in the story of AIDS, watching the 2012 documentary film of the same title that spawned the book would be an easier way to absorb copious information and keep track of all the individuals and organizations involved.
Nonetheless, I can certainly affirm the importance of a landmark book like this one. When I surveyed critical opinion on it for Bookmarks magazine, I noticed many comparisons to Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, but while that book was written in medias res and deliberately vilified a French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaëtan Dugas who was linked with multiple AIDS cases in North America, How to Survive a Plague benefits from two decades of hindsight and reflects a mixture of journalistic objectivity and personal grief.
It’s sobering to remember the scale of the AIDS epidemic: 100,000 Americans had died of it by 1991. As one HIV-positive ACT UP activist cried out to Bill Clinton, then a Democratic candidate, at a campaign event, “Bill, we’re dying of neglect!” France’s book really brings home how traumatic these years were for a whole country, but especially for homosexuals. He describes the relief of knowing that effective medical treatment was finally in the pipeline, but also the lingering effects of shame, bitterness, and fear.
Nobody left those years uncorrupted by what they’d witnessed, not only the mass deaths—100,000 lost in New York City alone, snatched from tightly drawn social circles—but also the foul truths that a microscopic virus had revealed about American culture: politicians who welcomed the plague as proof of God’s will, doctors who refused the victims medical care, clergymen and often even parents themselves who withheld all but a shiver of grief. Such betrayal would be impossible to forget in the subsequent years.
My gut feeling: France has written a definitive history of the AIDS crisis in the United States. It’s a cautionary tale that must not be forgotten. While not among my personal favorites from the shortlist, it would be a worthy winner.
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books