The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.
Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?
The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.
It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.
But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.
My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).
Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.
Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.
There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.
Have you read anything from the Booker shortlist?
Which book do you expect to win?
The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting
A legend from Mytting’s hometown tells of two centuries-old church bells that, like conjoined twins, were never meant to be separated. Inspired by that story and by the real-life move of a stave church from Norway to what is now Poland, he embarked on a trilogy in which history and myth mingle to determine the future of the isolated village of Butangen. The novel is constructed around compelling dichotomies. Astrid Hekne, a feminist ahead of her time, is in contrast with the local pastor’s conventional views on gender roles. She also represents the village’s unlearned folk; Deborah Dawkin successfully captures Mytting’s use of dialect in her translation, making Astrid sound like one of Thomas Hardy’s rustic characters.
- See my full review at BookBrowse.
- See also my related article on stave churches.
- One of the coolest things I did during the first pandemic lockdown in the UK was attend an online book club meeting on The Bell in the Lake, run by MacLehose Press, Mytting’s UK publisher. It was so neat to see the author and translator speak “in person” via a Zoom meeting and to ask him a couple of questions in the chat window.
- A readalike (and one of my all-time favorite novels) is Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned.
Memorial by Bryan Washington
In Washington’s debut novel, set in Houston and Osaka, two young men reassess their commitments to their families and to each other. The narration is split between Benson and Mike, behind whose apparent lack of affect is a quiet seam of emotion. Both young men are still shaken by their parents’ separations, and haunted by patterns of abuse and addiction. Flashbacks to how they met create a tender backstory for a limping romance. Although the title (like most of the story titles in Lot) refers to a Houston neighborhood, it has broader significance, inviting readers to think about the place our loved ones have in our memories. Despite the tough issues the characters face, their story is warm-hearted rather than grim. Memorial is a candid, bittersweet work from a talented young writer whose career I will follow with interest.
- See my full review at BookBrowse.
- See also my related article on the use of quotation marks (or not!) to designate speech.
- I enjoyed this so much that I immediately ordered Lot with my birthday money. I’d particularly recommend it if you want an earthier version of Brandon Taylor’s Booker-shortlisted Real Life (which I’m halfway through and enjoying, though I can see the criticisms about its dry, slightly effete prose).
- This came out in the USA from Riverhead in late October, but UK readers have to wait until January 7th (Atlantic Books).
Not long now until Nonfiction November. I’m highlighting three nonfiction books I’ve read over the last few months; any of them would be well worth your time if you’re still looking for some new books to add to the pile. I’ve got a practical introduction to the philosophy and politics of long-term/intergenerational planning, a group biography about the two gay couples who inhabited a house in the Welsh hills in turn, and a wide-ranging work on eels.
The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric
I saw Krznaric introduce this via a digital Hay Festival session back in May. He is an excellent speaker and did an admirable job of conveying all the major ideas from his recent work within a half-hour presentation. Unfortunately, this meant that reading the book itself didn’t add much for me, although it goes deeper into his propositions and is illustrated with unique, helpful figures.
Without repeating from my write-up of the Festival talk, then, I’ll add in points and quotes that struck me:
- “some of the fundamental ways we organise society, from nation states and representative democracy to consumer culture and capitalism itself, are no longer appropriate for the age we live in.”
- 100 years as the minimum timeframe to think about (i.e., a long human life) – “taking us beyond the ego boundary of our own mortality so we begin to imagine futures that we can influence yet not participate in ourselves.”
- “The phones in our pockets have become the new factory clocks, capturing time that was once our own and offering in exchange a continuous electronic now full of infotainment, advertising and fake news. The distraction industry works by cleverly tapping into our ancient mammalian brains: our ears prick up at the ping of an arriving message … Facebook is Pavlov, and we’re the dogs.”
- The Intergenerational Solidarity Index as a way of assessing governments’ future preparation: long-term democracies tend to perform better, though they aren’t perfect; Iceland scores the highest of all, followed by Sweden.
- Further discussion of Doughnut Economics (a model developed by Krznaric’s wife, Kate Raworth), which pictures the sweet spot humans need to live in between a social foundation and the ecological ceiling; failures lead to overshoot or shortfall.
- Four fundamental barriers to change: outdated institutional designs (our basic political systems), the power of vested interests (fossil fuel companies, Amazon, et al.), current insecurity (refugees), and “insufficient sense of crisis” – we’re like frogs in a gradually boiling pot, he says, and need to be jolted out of our complacency.
This is geared more towards economics and politics than much of what I usually read, yet fits in well with other radical visions of the future I’ve engaged with this year (some of them more environmentalist in approach), including Footprints by David Farrier, The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus, and Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell.
With thanks to WH Allen for the free copy for review.
On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell into Place by Mike Parker (2019)
I ordered a copy from Blackwell’s after this made it through to the Wainwright Prize shortlist – it went on to be named the runner-up in the UK nature writing category. It’s primarily a memoir/group biography about Parker, his partner Peredur, and George and Reg, the couple who previously inhabited their home of Rhiw Goch in the Welsh Hills and left it to the younger pair in their wills. In structuring the book into four parts, each associated with an element, a season, a direction of the compass and a main character, Parker focuses on the rhythms of the natural year. The subtitle emphasizes the role Rhiw Goch played, providing all four with a sense of belonging in a rural setting not traditionally welcoming to homosexuals.
Were George and Reg the ‘only gays in the village,’ as the Little Britain sketch has it? Impossible to say, but when they had Powys’ first same-sex civil partnership ceremony in February 2006, they’d been together nearly 60 years. By the time Parker and his partner took over the former guesthouse, gay partnerships were more accepted. In delving back into his friends’ past, then, he conjures up another time: George fought in the Second World War, and for the first 18 years he was with Reg their relationship was technically illegal. But they never rubbed it in any faces, preferring to live quietly, traveling on the Continent and hosting guests at their series of Welsh B&Bs; their politics was conservative, and they were admired locally for their cooking and hospitality (Reg) and endurance cycling (George).
There are lots of in-text black-and-white photographs of Reg and George over the years and of Rhiw Goch through the seasons. Using captioned photos, journal entries, letters and other documents, Parker gives a clear impression of his late friends’ characters. There is something pitiable about both: George resisting ageing with nude weightlifting well into his sixties; Reg still essentially ashamed of his sexuality as well as his dyslexia. I felt I got to know the younger protagonists less well, but that may simply be because their stories are ongoing. It’s remarkable how Welsh Parker now seems: though he grew up in the English Midlands, he now speaks decent Welsh and has even stood for election for the Plaid Cymru party.
It’s rare to come across something in the life writing field that feels genuinely sui generis. There were moments when my attention waned (e.g., George’s feuds with the neighbors), but so strong is the overall sense of time, place and personality that this is a book to prize.
The Gospel of the Eels: A Father, a Son and the World’s Most Enigmatic Fish by Patrik Svensson
[Translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé]
“When it comes to eels, an otherwise knowledgeable humanity has always been forced to rely on faith to some extent.”
We know the basic facts of the European eel’s life cycle: born in the Sargasso Sea, it starts off as a larva and then passes through three stages that are almost like separate identities: glass eel, yellow eel, silver eel. After decades underwater, it makes its way back to the Sargasso to spawn and die. Yet so much about the eel remains a mystery: why the Sargasso? What do the creatures do for all the time in between? Eel reproduction still has not been observed, despite scientists’ best efforts. Among the famous names who have researched eels are Aristotle, Sigmund Freud and Rachel Carson, all of whom Svensson discusses at some length. He even suggests that, for Freud, the eel was a suitable early metaphor for the unconscious – “an initial insight into how deeply some truths are hidden.”
But there is a more personal reason for Svensson’s fascination with eels. As a boy he joined his father in eel fishing on Swedish summer nights. It was their only shared hobby; the only thing they ever talked about. His father was as much a mystery to him as eels are to science. And it was only as his father was dying of a cancer caused by his long road-paving career that Svensson came to understand secrets he’d kept hidden for decades.
Chapters alternate between this family story and the story of the eels. The book explores eels’ place in culture (e.g., Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum) and their critically endangered status due to factors such as a herpes virus, nematode infection, pollution, overfishing and climate change. A prior curiosity about marine life would be helpful to keep you going through this, but the prose is lovely enough to draw in even those with a milder interest in nature writing.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
One of my recent borrows from the public library’s children’s section was the picture book Think of an Eel by Karen Wallace. Her unrhymed, alliterative poetry and the paintings by Mike Bostock beautifully illustrate the eel’s life cycle and journey.
You simply must hear folk singer Kitty Macfarlane’s gorgeous song “Glass Eel” – literally about eels, it’s also concerned with migration, borders and mystery.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.
The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.
This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.
My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]
The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.
Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.
My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.
My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts
I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus for Pride Month:
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt
There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.
Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.
Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).
Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
What recent releases can you recommend?
I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.
She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.
Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.
Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)
Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.
Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.
My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”
A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.
I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”
In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.
By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)
And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.
Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.
I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).
I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.
I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.
What recent releases can you recommend?
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation (see Kate’s introductory post) starts with Cormac McCarthy’s bleak dystopian novel The Road (2006).
I’ve read several of McCarthy’s novels, including this one. Believe it or not, this is not the darkest – that would be Blood Meridian.
#1 Sticking with the road trip theme, I’ll start by highlighting one of my favorite novels from 2018, Southernmost by Silas House. Tennessee preacher Asher Sharp’s family life falls apart when he welcomes a homosexual couple into his church. After being voted out of his post, he kidnaps his son and drives to Key West, Florida, where his estranged gay brother lives.
#2 A minister is also the main character in Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout (2006). I finished this one, my fourth novel from Strout, a couple of weeks ago. She tenderly probes the dark places of a mid-twentieth century Maine community and its pastor’s doubts, but finds the light shining through. From first line to last word, this was gorgeous.
#3 “Abide with Me,” Reverend Tyler Caskey’s favorite hymn, gives the novel its title. Also named after a song is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987/2000). I have a copy on the shelf and tried the first 20 pages a couple of months ago, but it was so normal – compared to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyway – that I felt disoriented and set it aside.
#4 Returning to bleakness … the Norwegian reference takes me one of the first books from Norway I remember reading: Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890). It’s a spare story of a starving writer who wanders the streets of Oslo looking for opportunities for food and publication, tramping about simply to keep warm at the onset of a bitter Scandinavian winter.
#5 Same title; rather different contents: Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017) is a collection of short autobiographical essays that riff on weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact and never self-pitying. This is still the only thing I’ve read by her, but I mean to read more, starting with her novel An Untamed State.
[#5.5 Her surname takes me to the title of my cheaty half-step, A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller (1962), a semi-autobiographical novel about a man from Iowa who helps free the concentration camps and then has a career as a theatrical producer. It was Nancy Pearl’s first Book Lust Rediscoveries reprint book and is on my TBR.]
#6 While it’s not implied by that title, Miller was, er, gay, which leads to another of his books, On Being Different. I have Pearl to thank for leading me to this 1971 essay, which was republished in book form in 2013. It’s an insider’s view of what it is like to be a homosexual. A period piece now, it feels like a precursor to the revolution in gay rights. It’s one of the books (along with Straight by Hanne Blank and Conundrum by Jan Morris) that have most boosted my tolerance and compassionate understanding.
(This loops nicely back to #1 and the story of a preacher accepting homosexuality in his family as well as in his church congregation.)
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Many thanks to the publisher for free print or e-copies of these three books for review.
In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller
“Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica? / Well here are the stories underneath.” The last two lines of “The Understory” reveal Miller’s purpose in this, his fifth collection of poetry. The title is taken from Jamaican crime reports, which often speak of a victim’s corpse being dumped in, or perpetrators escaping to, “nearby bushes.” It’s a strange euphemism that calls to mind a dispersed underworld where bodies are devalued. Miller persistently contrasts a more concrete sense of place with that iniquitous nowhere. Most of the poems in the first section open with the word “Here,” which is also often included in their titles and repeated frequently throughout Part I. Jamaica is described with shades of green: a fertile, feral place that’s full of surprises, like an escaped colony of reindeer.
As usual, Miller slips in and out of dialect as he reflects on the country’s colonial legacy and the precarious place of homosexuals (“A Psalm for Gay Boys” is a highlight). Although I enjoyed this less than the other books I’ve read by Miller, I highly recommend his work in general; the collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is a great place to start.
Some favorite lines:
“Here that cradles the earthquakes; / they pass through the valleys // in waves, a thing like grief, / or groaning that can’t be uttered.” (from “Hush”)
“We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.” (from “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places”)
“Cause woman is disposable as that, / and this thing that has happened is … common as stone and leaf and breadfruit tree. You should have known.” (from “In Nearby Bushes” XIII.III)
In Nearby Bushes was published on 29th August.
So Many Rooms by Laura Scott
Art, Greek mythology, the seaside, the work of Tolstoy, death, birds, fish, love and loss: there are lots of repeating themes and images in this debut collection. While there are a handful of end rhymes scattered through, what you mostly notice is alliteration and internal rhyming. The use of color is strong, and not just in the poems about paintings. A few of my favorites were “Mulberry Tree” (“My mother made pudding with its fruit, / white bread drinking / colour just as the sheets waited / for the birds to stain them purple.”), “Direction,” and “A Different Tune” (“oh my heavy heart how can I / make you light again so I don’t have to // lug you through the years and rooms?”). There weren’t loads of poems that stood out to me here, but I’ll still be sure to look out for more of Scott’s work.
So Many Rooms was published on 29th August.
A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann
Rachel Mann, a transgender Anglican priest, was Poet-in-Residence at Manchester Cathedral from 2009 to 2017 and is now a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing and English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. The final five poems are named after some of the daily offices, and “Christening” and “Extreme Unction” are two stand-outs that describe performing rituals for the beginning and end of life. The poet draws on Greek myth as well as on the language of Christian classics from St. Augustine to R.S. Thomas.
Human fragility is an almost comforting undercurrent (“Be dust with me”), with the body envisioned as the site of both sin and redemption. A focus on words leads to a preoccupation with mouths and the physical act of creating and voicing language. There is surprisingly anatomical vocabulary in places: the larynx, the palate. Mann also muses on Englishness, and revels in the contradictions of ancient and modern life: Chaucer versus a modern housing development, “Reading Ovid on the Underground.” She undertakes a lot of train rides and writes of passing through stations, evoking the feeling of being in transit(ion).
You wouldn’t know the poet had undergone a sex change unless you’d already read about it in the press materials or found other biographical information, but knowing the context one finds extra meaning in “Dress,” about an eight-year-old coveting a red dress (“To simply have known it was mine / in those days”) and “Give It a Name,” about the early moments of healing from surgery.
This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines:
“Love should taste of something, / The sea, I think, brined and unsteady, / Of scale and deep and all we crawled out from.” (from “Collect for Purity”)
“I don’t know what ‘believe in’ means / In the vast majority of cases, / Which is to say I think it enough // To acknowledge glamour of words – / Relic, body, bone – I think / Mystery is laid in syllables, syntax” (from “Fides Quarens”)
“Offer the fact of prayer – a formula, / And more: the compromise of centuries / Made valid.” (from “A Kingdom of Love (2)”)
Particularly recommended for readers of Malcolm Guite and Christian Wiman.
Official release date: September 26th – but already available from the Carcanet website.
Any recent poetry reads you’d recommend?
The more I examined the architecture of my life, the more I realized how fraudulent were its foundations.
This is a book that wasn’t even on my radar until fairly late on in the year, when I noticed just how many of my Goodreads friends had read it and rated it – almost without fail – 5 stars. I knew John Boyne’s name only through the movie version of his Holocaust-set novel for younger readers, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and didn’t think I’d be interested in his work. But the fact that The Heart’s Invisible Furies was written in homage to John Irving (Boyne’s dedicatee) piqued my interest, and I’m so glad I gave it a try. It distills all the best of Irving’s tendencies while eschewing some of his more off-putting ones. Of the Irving novels I’ve read, this is most like The World According to Garp and In One Person, with which it shares, respectively, a strong mother–son relationship and a fairly explicit sexual theme.
A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery, starting with his indifferent adoptive parents, Charles and Maude. Charles is a wealthy banker and incorrigible philanderer occasionally imprisoned for tax evasion, while Maude is a chain-smoking author whose novels, to her great disgust, are earning her a taste of celebrity. Both are cold and preoccupied, always quick to remind Cyril that since he’s adopted he’s “not a real Avery”. The first bright spot in Cyril’s life comes when, at age seven, he meets Julian Woodbead, the son of his father’s lawyer. They become lifelong friends, though Cyril’s feelings are complicated by an unrequited crush. Julian is as ardent a heterosexual as Cyril is a homosexual, and sex drives them apart in unexpected and ironic ways in the years to come.
For Cyril, born in Dublin in 1945, homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It was illegal in Ireland until 1993, so assignations had to be kept top-secret to avoid police persecution and general prejudice. Only when he leaves for Amsterdam and the USA is Cyril able to live the life he wants. The structure of the novel works very well: Boyne checks in on Cyril every seven years, starting with the year of his birth and ending in the year of his death. In every chapter we quickly adjust to a new time period, deftly and subtly marked out by a few details, and catch up on Cyril’s life. Sometimes we don’t see the most climactic moments; instead, we see what happened just before and then Cyril remembers the aftermath for us years later. It’s an effective tour through much of the twentieth century and beyond, punctuated by the AIDS crisis and focusing on the status of homosexuals in Ireland – in 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized, which would have seemed unimaginable a few short decades before.
Boyne also sustains a dramatic irony that kept me reading eagerly: the book opens with the story Cyril’s birth mother told him of her predicament in 1945, and in later chapters Cyril keeps running into this wonderfully indomitable woman in Dublin – but neither of them realizes how intimately they’re connected. Thanks to the first chapter we know they eventually meet and all will be revealed, but exactly when and how is a delicious mystery.
Along with Irving, Dickens must have been a major influence on Boyne. I spotted traces of David Copperfield and Great Expectations in minor characters’ quirks as well as in Cyril’s orphan status, excessive admiration of a romantic interest, and frequent maddening failures to do the right thing. But there are several other recent novels – all doorstoppers – that are remarkably similar in their central themes and questions. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Nathan Hill’s The Nix we also have absent or estranged mothers; friends, lovers and adoptive family who help cut through a life of sadness and pain; and the struggle against a fate that seems to force one to live a lie. Given a span of 500 pages or more, it’s easy to become thoroughly engrossed in the life of a flawed character.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies – a phrase Hannah Arendt used to describe the way W.H. Auden wore his experiences on his face – is an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy. A very Irish sense of humor runs all through the dialogue and especially Maude’s stubborn objection to fame. I loved Boyne’s little in-jokes about the writer’s life (“It’s a hideous profession. Entered into by narcissists who think their pathetic little imaginations will be of interest to people they’ve never met”) and thanks to my recent travels I was able to picture a lot of the Dublin and Amsterdam settings. Although it’s been well reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m baffled that this novel doesn’t have the high profile it deserves. I am especially grateful to Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves for naming this her book of the year: knowing her discriminating tastes, I could tell I’d be in for something special. Look out for it on my Best Fiction of 2017 list tomorrow.
I got just four books for Christmas this year, but they’re all ones I’m very excited to read. I looked back at last year’s Christmas book haul photo and am impressed that I’ve actually read seven out of eight of them now – and the eighth is a cocktail cookbook one wouldn’t read all the way through anyway. All too often I let books sit around for years unread, but I will try to keep up this trend of reading books fairly soon after they enter my collection.
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