Reviews Roundup, February–March
One of my goals with this blog was to have one convenient place where I could gather together all my writing that appears in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I don’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first article for the Los Angeles Review of Books – exciting!
Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. The three first-person voices fit together like a dream. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over Communism and homosexuality. Walking into Eden’s office, especially, you’ll think you’ve landed on the set of Mad Men. This classy, well-plotted follow-up will win Rindell even more fans and tide us all over until the film version of The Other Typist – produced by and starring Keira Knightley – appears. Releases May 19th in the UK.
Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. When one of them falls ill, they pull together like a family. The tone of the novel lies somewhere between A Little Life and the sitcom Friends (a Mexican version of which the characters watch obsessively). Even as his characters realize that they are not special and not in control of their lives, Jansma never lets his book descend too far into gloom. Narrowly misses out on 5 stars from me because the storyline loses momentum in Part Two. Rich with emotion and literary allusions (from Walden to The Iliad), this is my favorite novel of the year so far.
Waltzing in Vienna by C.G. Metts (& interview): Three girlfriends – a singer staging a comeback, a psychology professor reawakening to sexuality after being widowed, and a socialite Southern Belle – are reunited in Charleston, South Carolina in their early forties. Remembering their wild college days, they wonder how to make midlife count. There’s a fun Sex and the City or Ya-Ya Sisterhood vibe to this recommended debut novel. I liked the mixture of nostalgia and gentle feminism, and I think this may also inspire readers to see South Carolina’s coastal landscape for themselves. The title phrase is the friends’ shorthand for smoking marijuana together.
The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker: Put simply, this is a fictionalized biography of the largely illiterate Hindu guru Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886). That may sound dry as dust, but Barker makes it a playful delight by skipping around in time and interspersing aphorisms, imagined film scenes, questions and answers, and even a recipe with the narrative chapters. The kernel of the story – set in 1857 at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, six miles north of Calcutta – is narrated in the first person by the guru’s nephew, Hriday. Scripture of all types (the Bible is also cited) is a relevant, joyful echo here rather than a dull set of rules. Bizarre but very readable. Releases April 21st.
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: This composite picture of the state of wildlife conservation in India is told from three perspectives: an elephant named the Gravedigger, a poacher, and a documentary filmmaker. James ably intersperses three voices as she explores how people fail to live up to their ideals and make harmful assumptions. Despite these attributes, it was one of those books I had to force myself through. Perhaps it was the environmental agenda: if a book is going to wear its message so openly, it has to live up to it in terms of the writing. I might have preferred it if the whole novel had been from Emma’s point of view, with one climactic encounter with the Gravedigger to make the poaching question immediate and not simply academic.
Dog Run Moon: Stories by Callan Wink [subscription service]: Wink’s debut story collection, set mostly under Montana’s open skies, stars a motley cast of aimless young men, ranchers, Native Americans, and animals live and dead. He plays around with Western stereotypes in intriguing ways. A few of the tales are a bit less compelling, and I would have preferred more variety in narration (8 of 9 are third person), but the stand-outs more than make up for it. My two favorites were “Runoff” (there’s a double meaning to the title) and “Exotics,” in which all the characters are lured by the life they don’t currently have.
For Books’ Sake
Interview with Rachel B. Glaser, author of Paulina & Fran [my review of which was in last month’s roundup]
Night Ringing by Laura Foley: Foley’s strong fifth collection ruminates on romance and family via autobiographical free verse. One of the collection highlights is “In the Honda Service Area,” which unexpectedly unites modern technology with ancient literature. While a woman describes her impending hip replacement surgery to a friend, Foley tries to concentrate on Homer’s Iliad. The collection is dedicated to Foley’s partner, Clara Giménez, and lesbian romance is a subtle undercurrent. Especially recommended for fans of Jane Hilberry and Adrienne Rich.
The Temple of Paris by Laura DeBruce: This second volume in Laura DeBruce’s Quicksilver Legacy trilogy is a fast-paced fantasy adventure novel. In the previous book, the author introduced the “Immortals,” centuries-old creatures who are impervious to disease and aging due to a magic elixir. If Hana, the teenage protagonist, can learn how to use the elixir in her possession correctly, she can save her mother from a potentially fatal blood disorder. Although the complicated plot might be challenging for those new to the series, older teens will appreciate the rollicking story and the chance for vicarious European sightseeing.
Mon amie américaine by Michèle Halberstadt: After years of heavy smoking and migraines, a brain aneurysm plunges forty-year-old Molly into a coma. The novel is presented as Michèle’s confessional letter to her American friend Molly, addressed in the second person. During Molly’s coma and after she wakes up, Michèle ponders their unlikely friendship and also frets over her threatened marriage. The novella is like a cross between Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, and bears tantalizing traces of deliberate homage to Pedro Almodóvar’s coma-themed Talk to Her: an understated dual account of betrayal and disability.
Specimen: Stories by Irina Kovalyova: “People like to pretend that our genes define the truth for us. But I assure you that’s not the case,” a character insists in the title story. Diverse in setting and form, these nine stories, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, contrast the scientific understanding of genetics with deeper wisdom about the bonds of love and family. Nestling science into rich psychological narratives, Kovalyova’s work is reminiscent of that of Andrea Barrett and A. S. Byatt; in fact, the latter is directly referenced in one story. She also channels Anthony Marra and Adam Johnson by affirming love’s survival in spite of repressive situations.
Of Crime and Passion by Jonathan Harnisch: In this novella, a proud young man seeks to transcend his underprivileged upbringing by worming his way into the homes of the rich and seducing powerful women. At its heart, the book is about the ongoing conflict between economic and social classes. With the melodramatic action and old-fashioned dialogue, though, it is easy to imagine this coming-of-age tale working better in the form of a play.
(a Canadian publication highlighting coastal ecosystems)
Seal by Victoria Dickenson: “It is hard to imagine a creature more distant from the human species in bodily form, habits, and habitat than the seal,” Dickenson writes in her introduction, “yet our mutual regard tells of a long, shared history of interaction.” Seal is the latest in the 80-strong Animal series from Reaktion Books. Like other volumes, this gives a brief discussion of the featured animal’s evolutionary biology, followed by an interdisciplinary survey of how it has entered human culture throughout history. In the final two chapters—the highlight of an occasionally dry book—Dickenson gives a balanced account of the history of hunting seals.
Los Angeles Review of Books
“Rediscovering an Overlooked Woman Novelist”: A dual review of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux () and Miss Grief and Other Stories (), a new selection of Woolson’s short fiction.
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–1894) is most often remembered for her connection to male writers; her great-uncle was pioneering American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, and in her later years as an expatriate in Europe she associated with Henry James, fueling rumors of a romance between them. Deserving to be known in her own right, Woolson represents key junctures between realism and regionalism, and between American and European styles. Gives a remarkable picture of a bold, bright woman who paved the way for writers such as Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster, and Willa Cather, and who arguably might be hailed in the same breath as Henry James and George Eliot.
My quick response to Instructions for a Heatwave, for a Maggie O’Farrell retrospective: Another spot-on tale of family and romantic relationships – O’Farrell always gets the emotional tenor just right. You may spot hints of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, but the psychological and linguistic precision is all O’Farrell’s own. Her descriptive language is unfailingly elegant. I love how she opens with the heat as the most notable character: “It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.”
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox: This wide-ranging essay discusses pretentiousness as it relates to class, taste, and modern art. Fox grew up outside of Oxford but now lives in New York City, where he is the co-editor of frieze. From its Latin etymology we learn that pretentious means “to stretch before,” so to hold something in front of you like a mask. He thus starts off by talking about acting techniques and rhetoric, then broadens this out to themes of authenticity and self-discovery. The most interesting part of the book concerns class connotations. This is a somewhat meandering work, and though it has good individual lines it is not always riveting.
Third Way magazine
I’ve reviewed books, mostly fiction, for them for the last 2.5 years; sadly, the April 2016 issue will be the final one. It’s a shame; the progressive Christian perspective on popular culture is a niche it will be hard to fill.
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris: Barney Norris is a playwright in his twenties, so it’s no surprise that there’s something a little staged to his debut novel. The lives of the book’s five narrators collide one night when a car hits a moped in Salisbury town center. We hear from each protagonist in turn as they reflect on their losses and wonder whether religion – represented by Salisbury Cathedral and the scripture and rituals of Christianity – might help. Rita is the liveliest and most engaging character, difficult as her expletive-strewn narrative might be to traverse. Like David Nicholls, Norris prizes emotional connection and delivers a theatrical plot. If he can avoid the more clichéd aspects of a novel like One Day, he could have a long career in fiction ahead of him. Releases April 21st.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Mosquitoland by David Arnold: I don’t read a whole lot of YA, but the voice of this one captured me right away. Like Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, Mim (Mary Iris Malone) is a lovably sarcastic oddball – she describes herself as “a young Ellen Page” à la Juno – with some hidden issues that come out over the course of the book. Here Mim’s journey takes the form of a road trip from Mississippi, where she lives with her father and new stepmother, back to Ohio to be with her sick mother. She meets a kooky cast of secondary characters along the way, narrowly escapes danger, and even gets a chance at romance.
A Change of World: Poems by Adrienne Rich: This is a forthcoming Norton reissue of Rich’s first collection from 1951. I’d always thought of her as a later, feminist poet, so it was jolting to see an introduction from W.H. Auden – that made it feel like a real generational crossover. It’s a very impressive debut, full of mannered, rhyme-rich verse. Two favorites were “Walden 1950” (“Thoreau, lank ghost, comes back to visit Concord, / Finds the town like all towns, much the same— / A little less remote, less independent”) and “The Innocents.” I’ll be interested to read some of her later work and see if she loosened up with form. Releases June 21st.
The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan: A clever dual-timeline novel with a pleasing Gothic flavor. In 1922 Grace Fairford takes up a governess position at Fenix House near Cheltenham, the very place where her grandmother, Harriet Jenner, worked in 1878. Every few chapters the perspective shifts from Grace (first person) to Harriet (third person). The novel is full of coincidences and the sense of history repeating itself. Riordan’s writing is capable, sometimes clichéd, but the echoes of Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw make this a delicious guilty-pleasure read.
Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark: Etymologically, the word “religion” means to bind together again. Simply put, Dark’s thesis is that we’re all connected: we are in relationship with the people around us and can’t pretend otherwise. What we need is a shared vision for our shared life, and that involves engaging with other people. No pie-in-the-sky theology here; Dark affirms Daniel Berrigan’s assertion that “the actual world is our only world,” so things like climate change, gun control, immigration, and foreign policy are religious issues because they affect us all in this life. Together we have to imagine another story that isn’t capitalism and American imperialism as usual.
Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičević Ivančević: In summer 2009, Dada (aka Rusty) returns to her Croatian hometown to care for her mother. Going home facing up to the fact of her brother’s death – when he was 18 he threw himself under a train. “One has to sit down beside one’s demon and mollify it until it’s calm – that’s all, perhaps, that can be done,” she muses. Now for the title: Dada’s late father, brother, and friends (“the Iroquois Brothers”) were all big on cowboys and Indians. When news comes that a spaghetti western actor/director named Ned Montgomery will be passing through town, it causes Dada to think about her father and her brother and, what’s more, about the workings of her own memory.
Now Go Out There: (and Get Curious) by Mary Karr: There’s not much to this Syracuse University commencement speech. Leftovers of sob-story autobiography and clichéd advice cobbled together. Disappointing given how much I loved Karr’s recent The Art of Memoir. For a truly inspirational graduation address, I recommend David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water.
How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living by Rob Bell: Bell left his pastoral role to become a motivational speaker so, unsurprisingly, this book is closer to self-help than theology. He’s good pals with Elizabeth Gilbert, and this book would make a great companion piece to her Big Magic. It’s about how to find what gets you out of bed in the morning and live mindfully. As always, his formatting – bite-size paragraphs, stretching out phrases with line breaks – is slightly annoying. I didn’t learn a whole lot; it was more a case of being reminded of things I knew deep down. He prefaces most chapters with an anecdote about his creative ventures, some of which were utter failures.
And my highest recommendation goes to…
The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine. One strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by Zinaida, the family’s eldest daughter, a doctor dying of a brain tumor. Zina’s story is offset by those of two contemporary women. Katya, a Russian émigré in London who’s trying to keep her failing publishing house afloat, sends the never-before-published diary to Ana, a translator based near the French border with Switzerland. There’s a touch of mystery here: where was the diary found? And what became of the novel Chekhov mentions he had in progress? Ana’s search for answers takes her to the Lintvaryov estate, even though Ukraine in 2014 is a hotbed of unrest. Having recently watched the BBC War & Peace miniseries with rapt interest and seen a Tchaikovsky symphony performance, it was the perfect time to get lost in an intricate, playful novel about how Russian literature still resonates. I’ll certainly be looking up Anderson’s other novels.
Small Books Are Good, Too
Last week I wrote in praise of doorstoppers – books over 500 pages. But I also love really short books: there’s just as much writing skill involved in making a narrative concise, and it can be supremely satisfying to pick up a book and polish it off within a couple hours, especially if you’re in a situation of captured attention as on a plane. Being honest and slightly selfish for a moment, short books are also a great way to build up a flagging year list.
Below I highlight poetry collections, memoirs, short stories and novellas that should be on your agenda if you’re looking for a quick read (number of pages in brackets after each title):
I try to always have a book of contemporary poetry on the go, usually by a British poet since I pluck these at random from my local public library shelves. Poetry collections aren’t always ‘quick’ reads, nor should they be, because you often have to read a poem more than once to understand it or truly appreciate its techniques. Still, with most poetry books numbering somewhere between 45 and 90 pages, even if you parcel them out over days or weeks they’ll take much less time than a novel. Pick up something by Mark Doty, Kathleen Jamie, David Harsent or Christopher Reid and you’ll have plenty of beautiful verse to ponder.
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth by Ruth Padel 
- All One Breath by John Burnside 
- Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being by Paul Durcan 
Depending on how thorough they are, autobiographies can often hover around 300 or 400 pages. Looking through my shelves, though, I’ve spotted a few in the 140–160 page range: My Movie Business by John Irving , The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby , and Winter by Rick Bass . Another short one well worth reading is the unusual The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey , a story about debilitating illness and taking comfort from nature.
Abigail Thomas, one of my favorite memoirists, writes in an episodic style that makes her 200-page books fly by as if they were half that length. Also, Anne Lamott has written two very short faith memoirs that would serve as a good introduction to her style and content for those who haven’t read Traveling Mercies et al.: Help Thanks Wow  and Stitches .
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso 
- The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander 
- What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas  – also included on my BookTrib list of mother–daughter memoirs to read for Mother’s Day
I used to shy away from short stories because I didn’t think they were worth the emotional investment, but recently I’ve decided I really like the rhythm of picking up a set of characters, a storyline and a voice and then, after 20 or so pages, following an epiphany or an aporia (or utter confusion), trading them in for a whole new scenario. Short stories are also the perfect length for reading during a quick meal or car ride. Two short story collections made it onto my “Best of 2014” list: White Man’s Problems by Kevin Morris and The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant.
Recently reviewed and recommended (no page numbers listed here because each story can stand alone):
- Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
- Funny Once by Antonya Nelson
- Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
With some credits for free Penguin books I got hold of Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) , a book I’d been hankering to read ever since I came across that terrific title. It’s an enjoyable academic comedy and locked room mystery, with nods to Borges and Poe (though I probably didn’t get them all).
I also recently discovered Peirene Press, which exclusively publishes novellas in translation. Their motto is “Contemporary European Literature. Thought provoking, well designed, short.” They publish the novellas in thematic trilogies, with headings such as “Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy” and “Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets.” The book I own from Peirene (scored from a secondhand bookshop in Henley-on-Thames for £1), from the “Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments” series, is Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson  (translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah).
It’s an odd little book, with a mixture of past and present tense and first-, third- and first-person plural narration. Set in the village of Downe, it’s peripherally about the title character, Charles Darwin’s gardener Thomas Davies, a new widower with two children, one of whom has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (newly identified). It’s thin on plot, it must be said. Daniel Lewis, the verger of Downe for five years, was dismissed for stealing from the church and is beaten up when he comes back to town; some characters think and talk about Darwin’s theory and Davies’s bereavement; there’s an overturned cart.
My favorite section, “At the Anchor,” is composed of conversations at the village pub, and my favorite individual lines reflect on Darwin’s influence on contemporary thought:
“Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks.”
“Great men are remembered, like Mr Darwin, a genuine monolith. We small folk are mere sand, washed by the waves as they go back and forth.”
“People in future decades and centuries will react to our ideas superciliously, as if we were children playing at thinking. We shall look most amusing in the light of new thoughts and inventions.”
If you’re looking to get through a classic in an afternoon, why not try one of these (full text available for free online through Project Gutenberg or other initiatives): Animal Farm by George Orwell , Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  or Flush by Virginia Woolf (her spoof ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel) . E. M. Forster’s novels also read very quickly, and several of John Steinbeck’s novels are quite short. Whether or not you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn movie, you’ll want to read the sparkling, bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote ; my edition also includes several of his best known short stories, including the wonderful “A Christmas Memory.”
I recently finished The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald ; all her books are similarly concise, so you may want to give her a try. The next novella on the pile for me is Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons . I had never heard of the author, but the title and description lured me into buying it from a library book sale on a trip back to America (for 25 cents, why not?!). It’s a Southern Gothic story with an eleven-year-old narrator whom Walker Percy likened to Holden Caulfield. The alluring first line: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”
For more ideas, see these two Publishers Weekly’s lists:
“10 Best Books Shorter than 150 Pages” (only repeats one of my suggestions)
“10 Best Short Story Collections You’ve Never Read”
Off topic, but today is a milestone for me: it marks exactly two years that I’ve been a freelance writer!
Are you fond of short books? Do you prefer them to doorstoppers? What are some of your favorite novellas? All comments welcome!