Tag Archives: Jane Smiley

20 Books of Summer: Bourdain, Ozeki and More

Over halfway through the summer and my numbers are looking poor. It’s not that I’m not reading a ton – in general, I am – it’s just that I’m having trouble finishing any foodie books. I’m in the middle of two food-related memoirs plus Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, and have recently started buddy-reading Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn with Annabel, so more reviews will be along eventually, but I predict August will be a scramble.

Today I review an in-your-face tell-all about the life of a chef, and a novel set between Japan and the United States that exposes the seamy side of meat production. A lite road trip and an iffy California classic follow as bonuses.

 

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

(20 Books of Summer, #5) “Get that dried crap away from my bird!” That random line about herbs is one my husband and I remember from a Bourdain TV program and occasionally quote to each other. It’s a mild curse compared to the standard fare in this flashy memoir about what really goes on in restaurant kitchens. His is a macho, vulgar world of sex and drugs. In the “wilderness years” before he opened his Les Halles restaurant, Bourdain worked in kitchens in Baltimore and New York City and was addicted to heroin and cocaine. Although he eventually cleaned up his act, he would always rely on cigarettes and alcohol to get through ridiculously long days on his feet.

From “Appetizer” to “Coffee and a Cigarette,” the book is organized like a luxury meal. Bourdain charts his development as a chef, starting with a childhood summer in France during which he ate vichyssoise and oysters for the first time and learned that food “could be important … an event” and describing his first cooking job in Provincetown and his time at the Culinary Institute of America. He also discusses restaurant practices and hierarchy, and home cook cheats and essentials. (I learned that you should never order fish in a restaurant on a Monday – it’ll be left over from Thursday’s order.) The pen portraits of his crazy sous-chef and baker are particularly amusing; other subjects include a three-star chef he envies and the dedicated Latino immigrants who are the mainstay of his kitchen staff.

My dad is not a reader but he is a foodie, and he has read Bourdain’s nonfiction (and watched all his shows), so I felt like I was continuing a family tradition in reading this. I loved my first taste of Bourdain’s writing: he’s brash, passionate, and hilariously scornful of celebrity chefs and vegetarianism (“the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food”). Being in charge of a restaurant sounds manic, yet you can see why some would find it addictive. How ironic, though, to find a whole seven references to suicide in this book. Sometimes he’s joking; sometimes he’s talking about chefs he’s heard about who couldn’t take the pressure. Eighteen years after this came out, he, too, would kill himself.

(See also this article about rereading Bourdain in the 20th anniversary year of Kitchen Confidential.)

Source: Local swap shop (free)

My rating:

 

(These two are linked by a late chapter in the Bourdain, “Mission to Tokyo,” in which he advises on a new Les Halles offshoot in Japan and gorges himself on seafood delights.)

 

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (1998)

(20 Books of Summer, #6) I don’t know what took me so long to read another novel by Ruth Ozeki after A Tale for the Time Being, one of my favorite books of 2013. This is nearly as fresh, vibrant and strange. Set in 1991, it focuses on the making of a Japanese documentary series, My American Wife, sponsored by a beef marketing firm. Japanese American filmmaker Jane Takagi-Little is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. The traditional values and virtues of her two countries are in stark contrast, as are Main Street/Ye Olde America and the burgeoning Walmart culture.

There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems: Jane, whose reproductive system was damaged by DES, a synthetic estrogen her mother took during pregnancy to prevent a miscarriage; and Akiko, the wife of Jane’s boss, who struggles with an eating disorder and domestic violence.

Jane starts sneaking controversial subjects into her shoots: a lesbian couple, a family formed by interracial adoption, and a five-year-old who has already undergone puberty due to the hormones used on her family’s cattle feedlot. What is “natural,” and what gets branded alien or invasive? From the kudzu that strangles the South to a murdered Japanese exchange student, Ozeki probes the related issues of nativism and racism. Her two protagonists’ stories – one in the first person; the other in the third person – come together in a surprising manner as Jane decides that she has a more pressing obligation than creating a diverting television show.

This is a bold if at times discomforting novel. At first it brought to mind the exaggerated comedy of Julian Barnes’s England, England and Jane Smiley’s Moo, but as it grew darker it reminded me more of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. It’s tricky, when a work of fiction tackles ethical or environmental matters, to balance storytelling and consciousness-raising, but Ozeki pulls it off with style. The only aspect that didn’t mean much to me, perhaps simply because of my unfamiliarity, was the excerpts from The Pillow Book of Shōnagon. How sad to think that I only have one more Ozeki awaiting me, All Over Creation. She averages a book every 5‒10 years; we can only hope that another is on the way soon.

Source: Charity shop

My rating:

 


I picked up another two food-adjacent books that didn’t work for me, though I ended up skimming them to the end.

 

America Unchained: A Freewheeling Roadtrip in Search of Non-Corporate USA by Dave Gorman (2008)

(20 Books of Summer, #7) I read the first couple of chapters, in which he plans his adventure, and then started skimming. I expected this to be a breezy read I would race through, but the voice was neither inviting nor funny. I also hoped to find more about non-chain supermarkets and restaurants – that’s why I put this on the pile for my foodie challenge in the first place – but, from a skim, it mostly seemed to be about car trouble, gas stations and fleabag motels. The only food-related moments are when Gorman (a vegetarian) downs three fast food burgers and orders of fries in 10 minutes and, predictably, vomits them all back up; and when he stops at an old-fashioned soda fountain for breakfast.

Source: Free bookshop

 

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935)

(20 Books of Summer, #8) I read the first 25 pages and then started skimming. This is a story of a group of friends – paisanos, of mixed Mexican, Native American and Caucasian blood – in Monterey, California. During World War I, Danny serves as a mule driver and Pilon is in the infantry. When discharged from the Army, they return to Tortilla Flat, where Danny has inherited two houses. He lives in one and Pilon is his tenant in the other (though Danny will never see a penny in rent). They’re a pair of loveable scamps, like Huck Finn all grown up, stealing wine and chickens left and right.

Steinbeck novels seem to fall into two camps for me. This is one of his inconsequential, largely unlikable novellas (like The Pearl and The Red Pony, which I studied in school – I’m lucky they didn’t put me off Steinbeck forever), whereas The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are masterful. It may also have something to do with the slight air of condescension towards characters of a different race: Steinbeck renders their speech with “thee” and “thou,” trying to imitate a Romance language’s informal pronouns, but it feels dated and alienating.

Source: Free bookshop

Continuing the Story: Why I’m Wary of Sequels and Series, with Some Exceptions

Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.

It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).

But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).

A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.

 

So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?

 

I want to know what happens next.

 

WINNERS:

After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.

Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.

 

LOSERS:

Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.

Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.

 

 

I want to spend more time with these characters.

 

WINNERS:

Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.

I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).

Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.

Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.

Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.

 

LOSERS:

H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.

The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.

I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.

The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.

I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.

 


What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.

 

Sequels: yea or nay?

20 Books of Summer #15: Twister by Genanne Walsh

As the members of a small Midwestern town go about their daily business, it’s impossible to forget that a tornado is on its way. We begin with Rose, an ornery woman who, especially after the death of her soldier son Lance shook the town, has kept herself to herself. Perry Brown repeatedly proposes buying her farm so that he can expand his own operation, but she spurns all offers. Estranged from her stepsister Stella, Rose only has her dog Fergus for company. Short meteorological and historical overviews serve as tense interludes, moving from the general to the particular and providing brief transitions between character portraits.

The successive chapters are simultaneous, interlocking stories that all take place in the immediate run-up to the storm touching down. We meet Scottie Dunleavy, an odd fellow who runs a shoe repair shop and leaves secret messages on the soles of people’s footwear. From Louise Logan, a gossipy bank teller, we learn how Rose and Stella fell out; through the eyes of Perry’s wife Nina we see just how tenuous Rose’s solitary existence has become.

After cycling through the perspectives of eight main characters, the book returns to the past in Part II, which starts with the meeting and marriage of Stella’s mother and Rose’s father and moves forward to the near present. The chapters turn choppier as the news of Lance’s death approaches. “Everyone shrank” after the loss of this hometown boy, Walsh writes; like the tornado, his death is an inescapable reality the narrative keeps moving towards.

I love small-town tales where you get to know all the neighbors and their secrets. Twister called to mind for me works by Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler, with Rose also somewhat reminiscent of Hagar in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. Casualties by Elizabeth Marro is another readalike, focusing on a bereaved mother and her soldier son’s backstory.

Twister was a novel I read slowly, just 10 or 15 pages at a sitting, to savor Walsh’s prose. It’s not a book to race through for the plot but one to linger over as you appreciate the delicacy of the characterization and the electric descriptions of the impending storm:

“If all warnings fail, here is what to look for: the sky turns green, greenish black, brackish. Hail falls. There is a sound that some liken to a freight train, a jet engine, a thousand souped-up Buicks drag racing across a sky. Debris falls from on high—frogs, playing cards, plywood, mud, rock.”

“Warm air rushes ecstatic through the center, pulling and turning, forcing cold air out and down in waves, feeding the dance. Cold coils, pulling inward, more of it and stronger until the warm air snuffs out, the funnel choked, thinning and lifting away. It stretches into a long ribbon, harmless now, twirling across the sky.”

My rating:

 


Twister, Genanne Walsh’s debut novel, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2015 and won the publisher’s Big Moose Prize. My thanks to the author for sending a free copy for review.

Painful but Necessary: Culling Books, Etc.

I’ve been somewhat cagey about the purpose for my trip back to the States. Yes, it was about helping my parents move, but the backstory to that is that they’re divorcing after 44 years of marriage and so their home of 13 years, one of three family homes I’ve known, is being sold. It was pretty overwhelming to see all the stacks of stuff in the garage. I was reminded of these jolting lines from Nausheen Eusuf’s lush poem about her late parents’ house, “Musée des Beaux Morts”: “Well, there you have it, folks, the crap / one collects over a lifetime.”

 

On the 7th I moved my mom into her new retirement community, and in my two brief spells back at the house I was busy dealing with the many, many boxes I’ve stored there for years. In the weeks leading up to my trip I’d looked into shipping everything back across the ocean, but the cost would have been in the thousands of dollars and just wasn’t worth it. Although my dad is renting a storage unit, so I’m able to leave a fair bit behind with him, I knew that a lot still had to go. Even (or maybe especially) books.

Had I had more time at my disposal, I might have looked into eBay and other ways to maximize profits, but with just a few weeks and limited time in the house itself, I had to go for the quickest and easiest options. I’m a pretty sentimental person, but I tried to approach the process rationally to minimize my emotional overload. I spent about 24 hours going through all of my boxes of books, plus the hundreds of books and DVDs my parents had set aside for sale, and figuring out the best way to dispose of everything. Maybe these steps will help you prepare for a future move.

The Great Book Sort-Out in progress.

When culling books, I asked myself:

  • Do I have duplicate copies? This was often the case for works by Dickens, Eliot and Hardy. I kept the most readable copy and put the others aside for sale.
  • Have I read it and rated it 3 stars or below? I don’t need to keep the Ayn Rand paperback just to prove to myself that I got through all 1000+ pages. If I’m not going to reread Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, better to put it in the local Little Free Library so someone else can enjoy it for the first time.
  • Can I see myself referring to this again? My college philosophy textbook had good explanations and examples, but I can access pithy statements of philosophers’ beliefs on the Internet instead. I’d like to keep up conversational French, sure, but I doubt I’ll ever open up a handbook of unusual verb conjugations.
  • Am I really going to read this? I used to amass classics with the best intention of inhaling them and becoming some mythically well-read person, but many have hung around for up to two decades without making it onto my reading stack. So it was farewell to everything by Joseph Fielding and Sinclair Lewis; to obscure titles by D.H. Lawrence and Anthony Trollope; and to impossible dreams like Don Quixote. If I have a change of heart in the future, these are the kinds of books I can find in a university library or download from Project Gutenberg.

 

My first port of call for reselling books was Bookscouter.com (the closest equivalents in the UK are WeBuyBooks and Ziffit). This is an American site that compares buyback offers from 30 secondhand booksellers. There’s a minimum number of books / minimum value you have to meet before you can complete a trade-in. You print off a free shipping label and then drop off the box at your nearest UPS depot or arrange for a free USPS pickup. I ended up sending boxes to Powell’s Books, TextbookRush and Sellbackyourbook and making nearly a dollar per book. Powell’s bought about 18 of my paperback fiction titles, while the other two sites took a bizarre selection of around 30 books each.

Some books that were in rather poor condition or laughably outdated got shunted directly into piles for the Little Free Library or a Salvation Army donation. Many of my mom’s older Christian living books and my dad’s diet and fitness books I sorted into categories to be sold by the box in an online auction after the house sells.

The final set of books awaiting sale.

All this still left about 18 boxes worth of rejects. For the non-antiquarian material I first tried 2nd & Charles, a new and secondhand bookstore chain that offers cash or store credit on select books. I planned to take the rest, including the antiquarian stuff, to an Abebooks seller in my mom’s new town, but I never managed to connect with him. So, the remaining boxes went to Wonder Book and Video, a multi-branch store I worked for during my final year of college. The great thing about them (though maybe not so great when you work there and have to sort through boxes full of dross) is that they accept absolutely everything when they make a cash offer. Although I felt silly selling back lots of literary titles I bought there over the years, at a massive loss, it was certainly an efficient way of offloading unwanted books.

 

As to everything else…

  • I sent off 42.5 pounds (19.3 kilograms) of electronic waste to GreenDisk for recycling. That’s 75 VHS tapes, 63 CDs, 38 cassette tapes, 11 DVDs, five floppy disks, two dead cables, and one dead cell phone I saved from landfill, even if I did have to pay for the privilege.
  • I donated all but a few of my jigsaw puzzles to my mom’s retirement community.
  • I gave my mom my remaining framed artworks to display at her new place.
  • I gave some children’s books, stuffed animals, games and craft supplies away to my nieces and nephews or friends’ kids.
  • I let my step-nephew (if that’s a word) take whatever he wanted from my coin collection, and then sold that and most of my stamp collection back to a coin store.
  • Most of my other collections – miniature tea sets, unicorn figurines, classic film memorabilia – all went onto the auction pile.
  • My remaining furniture, a gorgeous rolltop desk plus a few bookcases, will also be part of the auction.
  • You can tell I was in a mood to scale back: I finally agreed to throw out two pairs of worn-out shoes with holes in them, long after my mother had started nagging me about them.

 

Mementos and schoolwork have been the most difficult items for me to decide what to do with. Ultimately, I ran out of time and had to store most of the boxes as they were. But with the few that I did start to go through I tried to get in a habit of appreciating, photographing and then disposing. So I kept a handful of favorite essays and drawings, but threw out my retainers, recycled the science fair projects, and put the hand-knit baby clothes on the auction pile. (My mom kept the craziest things, like 12 inches of my hair from a major haircut I had in seventh grade – this I threw out at the edge of the woods for something to nest with.)

 

 

All this work and somehow I was still left with 29 smallish boxes to store with my dad’s stuff. Fourteen of these are full of books, with another four boxes of books stored in my mom’s spare room closet to select reading material from on future visits. So to an extent I’ve just put off the really hard work of culling until some years down the road – unless we ever move to the States, of course, in which case the intense downsizing would start over here.

At any rate, in the end it’s all just stuff. What I’m really mourning, I know, is not what I had to get rid of, or even the house, but the end of our happy family life there. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to that, or to my hometown. I’ve got the photos and the memories, and those will have to suffice.

 

Have you had to face a mountain of stuff recently? What are your strategies for getting rid of books and everything else?

A CanLit Classic: The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Hagar Shipley has earned the right to be curmudgeonly. Now 90 years old, she has already lived with her son Marvin and his wife Doris for 17 years when they spring a surprise on her: they want to sell the house and move somewhere smaller, and they mean to send her to Silver Threads nursing home. What with a recent fall, gallbladder issues and pesky constipation, the old woman’s health is getting to be more than Doris can handle at home. But don’t expect Hagar to give in without a fight.

This is one of those novels where the first-person voice draws you in immediately. “I am rampant with memory,” Hagar says, and as the book proceeds she keeps lapsing back, seemingly involuntarily, into her past. While in a doctor’s waiting room or in the derelict house by the coast where she runs away to escape the threat of the nursing home, she loses the drift of the present and in her growing confusion relives episodes from earlier life.

Many of these are melancholy: her mother’s early death and her difficult relationship with her father, an arrogant, self-made shopkeeper (“Both of us were blunt as bludgeons. We hadn’t a scrap of subtlety between us”); her volatile marriage to Bram, a common fellow considered unworthy of her (“Twenty-four years, in all, were scoured away like sand-banks under the spate of our wrangle and bicker”); and the untimely deaths of both a brother and a son.

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The stone angel of the title is the monument on Hagar’s mother’s grave, but it is also an almost oxymoronic description for our protagonist herself. “The night my son died I was transformed to stone and never wept at all,” she remembers. Hagar is harsh-tongued and bitter, always looking for someone or something to blame. Yet she recognizes these tendencies in herself and sometimes overcomes her stubbornness enough to backtrack and apologize. What wisdom she has is hard won through suffering, but she’s still standing. “She’s a holy terror,” son Marvin describes her later in the novel: another paradox.

Originally from 1964, The Stone Angel was reprinted in the UK in September as part of the Apollo Classics series. It’s the first in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence of five novels, set in a fictional town based on her hometown in Manitoba, Canada. It could be argued that this novel paved the way for any number of recent books narrated by or about the elderly and telling of their surprise late-life adventures: everything from Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared to Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. I was also reminded of Jane Smiley’s Midwest novels, and wondered if Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries was possibly intended as an homage.

I loved spending time in Hagar’s company, whether she’s marveling at how age has crept up on her—

I feel that if I were to walk carefully up to my room, approach the mirror softly, take it by surprise, I would see there again that Hagar with the shining hair, the dark-maned colt off to the training ring

trying to picture life going on without her—

Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There’s no one like me in this world.

or simply describing a spring day—

The poplar bluffs had budded with sticky leaves, and the frogs had come back to the sloughs and sang like choruses of angels with sore throats, and the marsh marigolds were opening like shavings of sun on the brown river where the tadpoles danced and the blood-suckers lay slimy and low, waiting for the boys’ feet.

It was a delight to experience this classic of Canadian literature.


(The Apollo imprint will be publishing the second Manawaka book, A Jest of God, in March.)

With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus/Apollo for the free copy for review.

My rating: 4-star-rating

Now in November by Josephine Johnson

I’d never heard of this 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner before I saw a large display of titles from publisher Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo, at Foyles bookshop in London the night of the Diana Athill event. Apollo, which launched with eight titles in April, aims to bring lesser-known classics out of obscurity: by making “great forgotten works of fiction available to a new generation of readers,” it intends to “challenge the established canon and surprise readers.” I’ll be reviewing Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son for Shiny New Books soon, and I’m tempted by the Eudora Welty and Christina Stead titles. Rounding out the list are two novels set in Eastern Europe, a Sardinian novel in translation, and an underrated Western.

now in novemberMissouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. She recognizes how unsuited her father, Arnold, was to farming: “He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have – that resignation which knows how little use to hope or hate.” The remaining members of this female-dominated household are mother Willa, older sister Kerrin and younger sister Merle. Half-feral Kerrin is a creature apart. She’s always doing something unpredictable, like demonstrating knife-throwing to disastrous effect or taking over as the local schoolteacher, a job she’s not at all right for.

The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help Arnold with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change:

‘This year will have to be different,’ I thought. ‘We’ve scrabbled and prayed too long for it to end as the others have.’ The debt was still like a bottomless swamp unfilled, where we had gone year after year, throwing in hours of heat and the wrenching on stony land, only to see them swallowed up and then to creep back and begin again.

Yet as drought settles in, things only get worse. The fear of losing everything becomes a collective obsession; a sense of insecurity pervades the community. The Ramseys, black tenant farmers with nine children, are evicted. Milk producers go on strike and have to give the stuff away before it sours. Nature is indifferent and neither is there a benevolent God at work: when the Haldmarnes go to church, they are refused communion as non-members.

Marget skips around in time to pinpoint the central moments of their struggle, her often fragmentary thoughts joined by ellipses – a style that seemed to me ahead of its time:

if anything could fortify me against whatever was to come […] it would have to be the small and eternal things – the whip-poor-wills’ long liquid howling near the cave… the shape of young mules against the ridge, moving lighter than bucks across the pasture… things like the chorus of cicadas, and the ponds stained red in evenings.

Michael Schmidt, the critic who selected the first eight Apollo books, likens Now in November to the work of two very different female writers: Marilynne Robinson and Emily Brontë. What I think he is emphasizing with those comparisons is the sense of isolation and the feeling that struggle is writ large on the landscape. The Haldmarne sisters certainly wander the nearby hills like the Brontë sisters did the Yorkshire moors.

The cover image, reproduced in full on the endpapers, is Jackson Pollock's "Man with Hand Plow," c. 1933.

The cover image, reproduced in full on the endpapers, is Jackson Pollock’s “Man with Hand Plow,” c. 1933.

As points of reference I would also add Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (resurrected by NYRB Classics in 2014), which also give timeless weight to the female experience of Midwest farming. Like the Smiley, Now in November stars a trio of sisters and makes conscious allusions to King Lear. Kerrin reads the play and thinks of their father as Lear, while Marget quotes it as a prophecy that the worst is yet to come: “I remembered the awful words in Lear: ‘The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ Already this year, I’d cried, This is enough! uncounted times, and the end had never come.”

Johnson lived to age 80 and published another 11 books, but nothing ever lived up to the success of her first. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, the folksy metaphors, and the philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where this tragic story might lead. Apollo has done the literary world a great favor in bringing this lost classic to light.

With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for the free copy.

My rating: 4 star rating

My Life in Book Quotes

I keep an ongoing Word file with details on my year’s reading: books finished with the date, number of pages, and source – similar information to what’s recorded on Goodreads – plus any quotations that particularly stood out to me. It occurred to me that by looking back through these annual book lists for the quotes that meant the most to me I could probably narrate my recent years. So here are the 2015–2016 quotes that tell my story.

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Career

 

“I’m learning that what’s important is not so much what I do to make a living as who I become in the process. … the heroine, when at a juncture, makes her own choice—the nonheroine lets others make it for her.”

(A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman, Joan Anderson)

 

“The dishes. The dishes! The goddamn dishes! No wonder women don’t succeed.”

(The author’s mother’s explosion in The Year My Mother Came Back, Alice Eve Cohen)

 

“Success says, What more can I get?

Craft says, Can you believe I get to do this?

(How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, Rob Bell)

 

“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

(Everyman, Philip Roth)


Finding a Home

 

“In Orcadian, ‘flitting’ means ‘moving house’. I can hear it spoken with a tinge of disapproval or pity: the air-headed English couple who couldn’t settle.”

(The Outrun, Amy Liptrot)

 

“Where, after we have made the great decision to leave the security of childhood and move on into the vastness of maturity, does anybody ever feel completely at home?”

(A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle)

 

“there is no such thing / as the right route or a clear passage / no matter where you start, / or how you plan it.”

(from “Aneurysm,” Selected Poems, Kate Clanchy)


Life vs. Books

 

“He had accepted that if you were a bookish person the events in your life took place in your head.”

(Golden Age, Jane Smiley)

 

“my way of seeing has always been different, shyer. To see the world I’ve always opened a book.”

(The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, Katie Roiphe)

“Other people’s lives, and the lives I read about in books, seem richer, mine seems so threadbare.”

(The Past, Tessa Hadley)


Overthinking

 

“She remembered finding her first white hair somewhere near her thirtieth birthday and it had sent her on a tailspin for half a day. It’s starting, she’d thought then. The follicle that produced that hair is dying. I’ve reached the tipping point and from now on it’s nothing but slow decline.”

(Dog Run Moon: Stories, Callan Wink)

 

“All the most terrifying Ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well.”

(A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara)

 

“I wished then, and still do, that there was something in me also that would march steadily in one road, instead of down here or there or somewhere else, the mind running a net of rabbit-paths that twisted and turned and doubled on themselves, pursued always by the hawk-shadow of doubt.”

(Now in November, Josephine Johnson – to be reviewed here within next couple weeks)

Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy

Jane Smiley’s “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy is a saga prioritizing the experiences of the Langdons, an Iowa farming family, over the century beginning in 1920. In chronological chapters, one per year from 1920 to the near future of 2019, Smiley follows an ordinary couple, their six children and several generations of their descendants as they navigate America’s social changes and re-evaluate their principles during decades of upheaval.

some luckSome Luck

Here’s an excerpt from my Shiny New Books review in early 2015: “Farming, unpredictable and frequently heartbreaking, is an appropriate framework for an all-American story. Aspects of the Great American Novel are certainly on display: immigrant roots, coming-of-age trajectories for individuals and the nation, and American dream scenarios of reinvention. Within the confines of its third-person omniscient point-of-view, the novel shifts between the perspectives of each main character, especially the children. Smiley avoids a gimmicky One Day effect by varying the time of year so most chapters highlight different events, birthdays or holidays. Droughts, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and McCarthyism all feature, while the start of the Cold War – including paranoia over the Russians getting the bomb – sets up the second volume.”

My rating: 4 star rating


Some months ago it occurred to me that I never followed up with the Langdons. Although I don’t generally read sequels or series, I nonetheless made it a priority to find the other two volumes of the trilogy from the library.


Early Warning

The second book covers 1953 to 1986. The family loses one member to Vietnam, one to cancer, and one to the easiest, simplest death you could imagine. There’s a shotgun wedding, a divorce, and several affairs. In short, it feels like a real family, like your family. Events seem arbitrary at the time but later take on the cast of inevitability. Historical landmarks are there as background information, not as clichéd points of action (a good example is the JFK assassination). The Vietnam War threads through the middle section, but isn’t overpowering. The connections with history are pretty subtle here. One of my favorites is when Janet, at a Vietnam protest march, suddenly realizes she’s behind Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Spock. Her later involvement with the Peoples Temple grew tiresome for me, but I appreciated the ironic eye on the future: in 1980, “Well, I guess, they invaded Afghanistan…wherever that is!”

early warningIowa was still my preferred setting, an ideal site for pondering time’s workings and how money comes and goes: Joe “knew enough at his age to know that dollars were like drops of mist – they fluttered around you and then dissipated.” I also like Andy’s therapy sessions, frequently featured in the first half. There’s even a gentle mystery in this book: a boy who doesn’t seem to be related to the family keeps showing up, but by the end we figure out who he is.

People may rise and fall in importance, just as they do in real life, but everyone has a perspective. That’s part of Smiley’s message here, I think. Early on she observes that Rosanna “hadn’t thought of Roland Frederick as having a point of view.” Recognizing other people as valid subjects, overcoming solipsism, is really what literature is all about.

Although I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t like the grandchildren generation all that much; Richie and Michael are especially unpleasant, and I have a feeling they will be major players in Golden Age. Still, I feel invested in and close to this family, so I’m going to see it through to the end.

Favorite passage:

Joe’s dystopian vision: “But he could see it, looking south – he could see all the layers lift off – the roof of the house, the second floor, the first floor. He could see the children and Jesse and Jenny and Lois and Minnie being lifted out on a fountain of debt and scattered to the winds; then he could see the corn and beans scoured away, and the topsoil, once twelve inches thick, now six inches thick, and below that, the silty clay loam, more gray than black, then the subsoil, brownish clay all the way down, down, down to the yellow layer, mostly, again, clay, all of it exposed, all of it flying into the atmosphere like money, burning up in the hot sunshine, disappearing.”

My rating: 4 star rating


Golden Age

Alas, the final installment was my least favorite. There are a few reasons for this. One is simply that I didn’t like the third- and fourth-generation characters as much. Another is that, with such a large family tree, you get more lists of names and catch-up sessions. The intrusion of history is also more overt. I noted this in the 2011 chapter, especially, which mentions the Japanese earthquake, Utøya and the Occupy movement. One character dies on 9/11; another gets a flesh-eating bacteria. One is struck by lightning; another dies in a hit and run. Not only are several of the deaths unrealistic, but, true to the winding-down spirit, there are simply a lot of them.

golden ageAs people disperse and the second generation starts to die off, the bonds between the family members weaken. The Iowa farm diminishes in real-life and symbolic importance compared to the action on the coasts: California, New York and Washington, where Richie is a congressman. I might actually have preferred if Smiley had imagined an alternative history for the 2000s and 2010s. (Of course, that would have broken the mold she made for herself.) For me, it all felt too close. I had a sense of her picking easy targets: “I would like to thank the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize,” she writes in her acknowledgments. There’s also too much horse material – a frequent indulgence for Smiley.

The last five or so chapters were speculative at the time Smiley was writing, and some of her predictions already seem a little silly, like violent protests against a Harper government in Vancouver in 2016. However, her environmental worries are right on, and her words about the 2012 presidential election seem prescient in relation to this year’s race: a character advises his family to vote Democrat “as a protest against the Republican Party for offering a roster of candidates that went from bad to worse to worst ever.”

My rating: 3 star rating


Ultimately, my favorite overall character was Andy, who reinvented herself as a young woman and does so again as a widow, turning into a computer and investment whiz. Frank was an early favorite in Some Luck, where he reminded me a lot of Mad Men’s Don Draper, but I grew less enamored with him over the years. Henry was perhaps my second favorite in the previous two books, but he rather fades into the background in the final book.

My advice to anyone wondering whether they should read this trilogy would be to start with Some Luck and, if you really like it, proceed to Early Warning. Golden Age is largely unnecessary and can be reserved for die-hard Smiley fans or series completists.

Further reading: Literary Hub article, “Why Wasn’t Great American Novelist Jane Smiley on the Cover of a Magazine?”

The Best Fiction of 2015: My Top 15

2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.

As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.

Let the countdown begin!

  1. The Shoreshore sara taylor by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
  1. gold fame citrusGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
  1. preparation for nextPreparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
  1. Circling the Suncircling the sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
  1. kitchens of the greatKitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
  1. hausfrauHausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
  1. versions of usThe Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
  1. fates and furiesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
  1. purityPurity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
  1. you too can haveYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
  1. animals kieferThe Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
  1. tsar of loveThe Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
  1. girl at warGirl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
  1. adelineAdeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
  1. A Little Lifelittle life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.

Best Discoveries of the Year: Mary Lawson (Road Ends), Daniel Kehlmann (F: A Novel), Jonathan Evison (This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!) and Jonathan Coe (Number 11).

Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).

golden ageThe Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).

Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.


What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)

Surveying the Almighty TBR List

Coming to the end of one year and looking ahead to another: it’s a good opportunity to take stock of my virtual and physical to-read piles once more. Thanks to fellow book bloggers Naomi at The Writes of Woman and Eleanor at Elle Thinks for giving me this meme idea and tagging me in it, respectively.

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I have a ridiculously large to-read shelf on Goodreads, but that’s more like a vague lifelong wish list – some of them I own, some I’ve only heard of and want to investigate further, some I’m desperate to get hold of, and so on. I recently culled my online TBR and cut it by about 10%, but it’s still overwhelming. In real life, I take occasional inventories of the unread books in our flat (192 at last count). However, this doesn’t account for the fact that at least half of my book collection is still in my parents’ house in the States. While I’m back there for some time over the holidays, I enjoy gazing at my books and choosing a select few to bring back in my suitcase. On this trip I’ll be boxing them all up to go into storage. When shall I ever be reunited with them?!

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Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

If I only consider the books I already have access to, there are more unread print ones on my shelves than there are e-book approvals through NetGalley and Edelweiss. There’s not all that much in it, though; I might estimate the print TBR at 400–500, while I have about 300 books at my disposal through those online sources and new titles come up for request all the time.

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

This generally depends on review deadlines, library due dates, and e-book expirations. In some sense, then, my reading list is completely imposed on me from outside. However, I always make sure I let whimsy guide some of my choices. Next year I hope to be even better about just picking up a book off my shelves and starting it for no reason other than instantaneous interest.

A book that has been on my TBR the longest

On the virtual TBR: probably Fast Food Nation and some of Margaret Atwood’s back catalogue. On the vague list in my head: all the more obscure Dickens and Hardy titles.

rochester knockingsA book I recently added to my TBR

Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters by Hubert Haddad.

know your beholderA book on my TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover

I love the beard-house on the cover of Know Your Beholder by Adam Rapp.

A book on my TBR that I never plan on reading

Will I really pick up Martin Amis’s novels, or Ian McEwan’s early work? How about those obscure Thomas Hardy novels like A Laodicean and A Pair of Blue Eyes?

eligibleAn unpublished book on my TBR that I’m excited for

I recently started Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (to be published on April 19, 2016). Her novel American Wife is one of my absolute favorites, so I was excited about her Pride and Prejudice retelling and lucky enough to be sent an advanced copy. I’m not that into it yet – the third-person omniscient voice is taking a while to get used to because first-person female narrators are Sittenfeld’s forte – but I hope it will pick up soon.

Layout 1A book on my TBR that everyone recommends

I’ve encountered almost universal praise for Elena Ferrante’s four autobiographical novels, the first of which is My Brilliant Friend. They’re on my priority list for 2016.

A book on my TBR that everyone has read but me

1984 by George Orwell.

can't we talkA book on my TBR that I’m dying to read

Some of my priority books to get hold of are Nell Zink’s novels, the final two books in Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years trilogy, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, and Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. I’ve also been meaning to read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert for ages, and I’m intrigued to try The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide.

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

5,664 on the Goodreads shelf; maybe 500 in the print queue.


People I’m tagging:

Shannon at River City Reading

Lucy at Literary Relish