Don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift.
Why would I be missing you so violently?
We’re all the hero when directing the scene,
But therapy for liars is a giant ice cream.
(from “Montparnasse” by Elbow)
I broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules—write about the book while it’s still fresh in your mind—and waited two weeks after finishing Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners before writing it up. Luckily the Elbow stanza above (Guy Garvey’s lyrics are like poetry, after all) brought back to me some of the themes I want to explore: how you can miss someone you barely know, the way that ties ebb and shift such that your blood kin are strangers and the unrelated become like family, and how a narcissistic personality can use coercion and deception to get his or her way. Plus there’s the ice cream metaphor of the last line, a link to the terrific cover on finished copies of the novel—not on my proof, alas.
The novel is presented as Sonny Anderson’s extended letter to the mother he doesn’t remember. He’s lived with his guardian, a Brit named Thomas Hardiker, in Redondo Beach, California for 11 years; before that they were in Brazil with Sonny’s father. A month ago, on his twenty-first birthday, Sonny received the astounding news that he’s a millionaire thanks to a trust fund from his late father, Robin Agelaste-Bim, better known as Guru Bim. His mother is Sarah Anderson: once a Scottish housewife, now untraceable. Despite his youth, Sonny has been a meth addict and kicked the habit through NA. This kid’s done a lot of living already, but sets out on a new adventure to learn about his parents from those who knew them. And while he’s in Britain, he’ll squeeze in some tourism related to his favorite movie, Shaun of the Dead.
Starting with Sonny’s plane ride to Heathrow, the book is in the present tense, which makes you feel you’re taking the journey right along with him. Although this isn’t being marketed as young adult fiction, it has the same vibe as some YA quest narratives I’ve read: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, both of David Arnold’s books, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Sonny is more bitter and world-weary than those teen protagonists, but you still get the slang and the pop culture references along with the heartfelt emotions.
Sonny’s first visit is to Torquay octogenarian Doris Henry, who was the Agelaste-Bims’ servant and Robin’s wet nurse circa 1970. Next up: London and Ruth Williams, whom Sonny’s mother, then going by Suki, recruited into a LifeForce meditation group. Ruth remembers taking against Guru Bim immediately: “He was faking it to get in with Suki. I understood the attraction, though; those narcissistic types are always charming.” Bim and Suki formed a splinter group, Trembling Leaves and soon announced Suki’s pregnancy, but things went awry and Suki fled to Scotland with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew.
This slightly madcap biographical trip around Britain also takes in Brighton, Scotland and Keswick in the Lake District. At each stop Sonny’s able to fill in more about his past, but it’s the letters Thomas sent along for him that contain the real shockers. It’s an epistolary within an epistolary, really, with Thomas’s series of long, explanatory letters daubing in the details and anchoring Sonny’s sometimes-earnest, sometimes-angry missive to his mother.
I loved tagging along on this kooky hero’s quest. My one small criticism about an otherwise zippy novel is that there is a lot of backstory to absorb, from Sonny’s former drug use onwards. For an American expat, though, it was especially fun to watch Sonny trying to get used to some peculiarities of Britain: “apparently it’s compulsory to eat potato chips and on Brit trains” and “We argue about which floor she lives on. I say second and Ruth says first, until we realise we mean the same thing.”
In a year that opened with a narcissist being installed in the White House and will soon see the publication of a new book about cult leader Jim Jones (The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, April 11th), McDonagh’s picture of Guru Bim is sure to strike a chord. As Ruth tells Sonny, in Ancient Greek an agelast was someone with no sense of humor; and she accused Bim of being “a manipulative charlatan.”
For Sonny, whose very name places him in relationship to others, coming to grips with who he came from means deciding to live differently and be content with his own piecemeal family, including Thomas, the Great Dudini (their dog), and maybe even a cool old lady like Ruth. You’ll love spending time with them all, and I imagine you’ll get a particular kick out of this if you like Shaun of the Dead. (Whisper it: I’ve never seen it.)
Narcissism for Beginners was published in the UK on March 9th. With thanks to Unbound for the review copy.
Martine McDonagh was an artist manager in the music industry for 30 years and now leads the Creative Writing & Publishing MA at West Dean College, Sussex. This is her third novel, following I Have Waited, and You Have Come and After Phoenix.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
Girl at War by Sara Nović [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: 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 careful structure is what keeps it from becoming just another ordinary, chronological war story. The recreation of a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is stunning. In fact, I can barely think of a negative thing to say about this concise novel. It strikes a perfect balance between past and present, tragic and hopeful.
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: With settings ranging from a Coney Island theater to an opium den and a mental asylum, this is a gritty look at late-nineteenth-century outsiders. Circus and sideshow themes have been very popular in fiction in recent years, and this is a great example of a novel that uses those elements as background but goes beyond the incidentals of the carnival lifestyle to examine sexuality and societal outcasts. A very atmospheric and accomplished debut novel.
Secrets of the Pomegranate by Barbara Lamplugh (& interview): In the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the secrets harbored by two English sisters, one of them settled in Granada, will come out into the open and affect the entire family. Lamplugh does a great job of unveiling a little at a time – but still maintaining tension until the surprise of the final revelation. The novel shifts easily between the central narrative and Deb’s diary entries, and between Alice’s and Mark’s perspectives. A strong debut novel.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass: An unusual mixture of historical, contemporary and dystopian short stories. A number of the first-person narratives feel like vague interior monologues, though there are some universal sentiments. When Greengrass picks one genre (but which will it be?) and sticks with it for the length of a whole book, she should have the time and space for the deep characterizations I thought were missing here. (But you can’t beat this book’s title, can you?)
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: This was one of the key books of my American childhood. All these years later, phrases were still familiar to me, such as Jamie’s frequent exclamation of “Oh, boloney!” I clearly remembered the delicious overall sense of adventure and secrecy. Konigsburg captures school group chatter and brother/sister banter perfectly. The museum and archive settings are a great way to get children interested in art, history and library research. This was the original Night at the Museum before that franchise was ever dreamed up.
The Hunt for the Golden Mole by Richard Girling: From Victorian animal collecting to present-day poaching, Girling surveys the contradictory human instincts toward exploitation and preservation of mammals. The book is rather scattered, with too little about the actual quest for the mole, but the message about species extinction is powerful. (The Somali golden mole has never been seen in the wild, except as a few bones in an owl pellet found by an Italian zoologist in 1964. For some reason, it captured Girling’s imagination, becoming a symbol of rarity and fragility.)
Road Ends by Mary Lawson: Contrasting rural Canada and London in the 1960s, Lawson’s third novel is a powerful story about how people deal with a way of life ending. She creates a perfect balance between her two plot strands, and the evocation of both locations is flawless, perhaps because they have autobiographical worth for her – she grew up on a farm in Ontario but moved to England in 1968. One remarkable thing about the novel is how she traces every decision back to a traumatic event in a character’s past.
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall: Rachel Caine has run Idaho’s Chief Joseph wolf preserve for nearly a decade, but her roots are in England’s Lake District. Her two worlds unexpectedly collide when an earl asks for her help reintroducing wolves near the Scottish border. Alongside the story of the wolves’ release runs Rachel’s decision to become a mother. The twin plot strands – one environmental and the other personal – ask what can be salvaged from the past.
Italian Ways by Tim Parks: Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in northern Italy for over 30 years. To start with he saw his train travel as an everyday source of woes about ticket queues, late running, officious staff, and so on, but as years passed he decided to interrogate Italy’s rail system as a metaphor for the country itself. He structures this book around seven train journeys. It’s better suited to train spotters than to armchair travelers: there is quite a lot about train schedules and not enough about the countryside itself.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee: A thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvelously detailed biography from Lee. Fitzgerald is, like Diana Athill, a reassuring examples of an author who did not find success until well into middle age. Although she always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her work wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. The approach is largely chronological, though Lee pauses at key moments to investigate the biographical origins of each of Fitzgerald’s books.
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Mazie Phillips-Gordon, a real ticket-taker at The Venice movie theatre, barely gets a footnote in history. Here we see all sides of this bold, brassy broad through Attenberg’s fragmented, epistolary narrative. The novel intersperses Mazie’s fictional diary entries (1907 to 1939) with excerpts from her unpublished autobiography and interviews with people who knew her. This is historical fiction – but not as we’re accustomed to it. Attenberg shows how fragile and incomplete the documentary record can be. A hard-nosed heroine with a heart of gold, Mazie will leave her mark on you.
A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson: As Goulson did in his book about bees, A Sting in the Tale, he treats readers like friends he is taking on a gentle tour to have everyday encounters with nature. The low-key, humorous anecdotes are reminiscent of the writings of Gerald Durrell, but – like Durrell – Goulson has a serious environmental agenda. Some of the most amusing chapters are about the sexual habits of insects and plants. This is less focused than his previous book, though, and repeats some of the material. The main draw, as always, is Goulson’s infectious enthusiasm and excellent explanations of science.
We Love This Book
War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite: In this postmodern satire, two Seattle hipsters must face reality when one of them leaves to fight in the Iraq War. From now on they keep in touch by updating their pretentious Wikipedia article. While Hal applies literary criticism to Star Wars and tries to make amends to his ex-girlfriend, Mickey is in life-and-death situations, looking for car bombs and overseeing local elections. Robinson and Kovite (an Iraq War veteran) alternate their settings in a fairly seamless whole.
The Edible Atlas by Mina Holland: Food lovers and armchair travelers alike will savor this tour through the world’s regional cuisines and trademark dishes. In her first book, the editor of the Guardian’s Cook supplement introduces 39 cuisines with larder lists, a rundown of crucial flavors, and one to four recipes. Maps show which spices and chilies are used in different areas, while sidebars present key ingredients. The book strives for a balance of common imports and unknown dishes, prioritizing authenticity and reproducibility at home.
Hollow Heart by Viola di Grado: Twenty-five-year-old Dorotea Giglio slit her wrists in the bathtub in July 2011 and expired in “a grim mojito of mint bubble bath and blood.” Over the next four years she chronicles her physical decomposition as well as her spirit’s enduring search for love. In alternately clinical and whimsical language, with fresh metaphors that have survived translation from Italian admirably, di Grado’s second novel examines the secret sadness passed down through families.
Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story by Nancy Sprowell Geise: This eye-opening account of a Polish Jew’s life before, during, and after Auschwitz deposits readers right into concentration camp horrors. Instead of presenting this as a third-person biography, Geise writes as Rubinstein, using extensive interviews and documentary research to recreate his perspective. While the story is necessarily a bit less dramatic after the chapters on the Holocaust, the fact that Rubinstein survived and later became a successful shoe designer in New York is inspiring.
The Contaminants by Devin K. Smyth: Two teens aboard a spacecraft hold out hope for new life on post-apocalyptic Earth in this believable YA science fiction novel. Composed of two solid first-person narratives and based around two father-child relationships, this is a novel that prizes emotions as much as it does technology. The novel is on the thin side; it could have done with another subplot or two to add some complexity. However, the subtle eugenics theme will give teen readers plenty to think about while they follow the fast-paced story.
The Loneliness Cure by Kory Floyd: A professor of communication tackles the loneliness epidemic with stories and science. Floyd explains the problems associated with chronic affection deprivation and suggests practical strategies for getting more of the human contact we naturally crave. Two-thirds of the text goes to preliminaries, but the subtitle’s six strategies are worth waiting for. Like the best self-help books, this convinces readers that “it pays to reach out for help when you need it” and gives the confidence and tactics to do so.
In this article I give a more in-depth preview of Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, her fictionalized biography of Beryl Markham.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
Insomnia by Linda Pastan: Excellent free verse poems infused with images of weather, heavenly bodies, the night sky, art history, and travels. No rhymes to speak of, but plenty of alliteration and repetition – like in “Necklace,” where nearly every line ends with “pearl” or “pearls.” Historical and mythological references are frequent and highbrow. Especially in Part 3, the main theme is facing old age and illness. Linda Pastan has been writing poetry for nearly half a century; I’ll be sure to seek out more of her collections. Releases October 26th.
The Kindness by Polly Samson: This very subtle novel reminds me of works by Tessa Hadley and Lucy Caldwell. It takes one seemingly perfect couple – Julia and Julian – and parses out what went wrong between them and the aftermath. The book is so elegantly structured; characters drift in and out of flashbacks with none of the customary warnings. Instead Samson leaves it to readers to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of how they met and raised their daughter, Mira, and then how everything fell apart.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressive 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. She juggles her storylines and moves through decades with ease. Less mawkish than One Day; less gimmicky than Life After Life – though there are shades of both. The message seems to be: there is no one perfect person, no one perfect story. Unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (My full review will appear in the July 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors by Darrin Nordahl: Nordahl travels through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina in search of truly indigenous local ingredients. He highlights ramsons, pawpaw, elk (leaner and richer than beef), squirrel, hickory nuts and black walnuts, sumac, spicebush berry, sassafras, and persimmons. There are a few recipes and photographs in each chapter, although this is more of a narrative than a cookbook. I loved how he brought it all together with an imagined Appalachian Thanksgiving feast.
Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City by Elizabeth Minchilli: Minchilli’s parents moved the family from America to Rome when she was 12. Over the years she kept going back to Italy: to Florence as a graduate student, and then to stay when she married Domenico. Here, through recipes and personal stories, she shares her enthusiasm for Italian food and for Rome in particular. She finishes each chapter with a list of favorite eateries, so this is a practical guide anyone would benefit from taking along on a trip to Rome.
Some Churches by Tasha Cotter: I loved the first two poems but felt a number of the rest were lacking in artistry. Almost all are written in complete sentences, some in paragraph blocks, and alliteration isn’t always enough to differentiate them from prose. Favorite lines (from “Blood Orange”): “People think that either the red or the orange should go, because to blend the two / alienates some readers. / … I, too, am having an identity crisis, / just like the blood orange. Now that we’ve peeled back / the artifice, you’re inviting me in anyway”.
South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby: This tour through Southern literature is a great introduction for someone whose familiarity with Southern authors is minimal. Starting off in her home state of Mississippi, Eby travels through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and back to Mississippi in a roughly circular road trip. My favorite chapter was on Flannery O’Connor, but I was also interested to learn about Harry Crews, who I’d never heard of before – it certainly sounds like he was a character. Releases September 8th.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: I could relate to much of Riley’s story. She was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but now even setting foot in a church made her feel nauseous. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” Aged 29, Riley had the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before 30. She writes in a chatty, girlfriend-to-girlfriend style, as if you’ve joined her book club for a glass of pinot grigio.