Tag Archives: literary criticism

September Poetry & Nonfiction: Antrobus, Benning, Carey; Bowler, Lister

September is a major month for new releases. I’ve already reviewed two fiction titles that came out this month: Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty and Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’m still working through the 500+ pages of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, and hope to report back on it before too long.

Today I have poetry volumes reckoning with race and disability and with modern farming on the Canadian prairie, as well as a centuries-spanning anthology; and, in nonfiction, memoirs of living with advanced cancer and adjusting to widowhood in one’s thirties.

 

All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus

Antrobus, a British-Jamaican poet, won the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Ted Hughes Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for his first collection, The Perseverance. I reviewed it for the Folio Prize blog tour in 2019 and was in attendance at the Young Writer ceremony when he won. Its themes carry over into this second full-length work: again, he reflects on biracial identity, deafness, family divisions, and the loss of his father. Specifically, he is compelled to dive into the history of his English mother’s ancient surname, Antrobus: associated with baronets, owners of Stonehenge, painters – and slavers.

Tell me if I’m closer

to the white painter

with my name than I am

 

to the black preacher,

his hands wide to the sky,

the mahogany rot

 

of heaven. Sorry,

but you know by now

that I can’t mention trees

 

without every shade

of my family

appearing and disappearing. (from “Plantation Paint”)

Other poems explore police and prison violence against Black and deaf people, and arise from his experiences teaching poetry to students and inmates. Captions in square brackets are peppered throughout, inspired by the work of Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. These serve as counterparts to the sign language illustrations in The Perseverance. There are also unsentimental love poems written for his wife, Tabitha. This didn’t captivate me in the same way as his first book, but I always enjoy experiencing the work of contemporary poets and would recommend this to readers of Jason Allen-Paisant, Caleb Femi and Kei Miller.

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

Field Requiem by Sheri Benning

Benning employs religious language to give structure to her solemn meditations on the degraded landscape of Saskatchewan, a place where the old ways have been replaced by impersonal, industrial-scale farming. Poems are titled “Plainsong,” “Minor Doxology,” “Intercession” and “Compline.” You can hear the rhythms of psalms and the echoes of the requiem mass in her verse.

There’s a prophetic tone behind poems about animal casualties due to pesticides, with “We were warned” used as a refrain in “1 Zephaniah”:

Everything swept away.

Everything consumed. Sky bled dry

of midges. Locusts, bees, neurons frayed.

 

Antiseptic silence of canola

fields at dusk, muted

grasshopper thrum.

Alliteration pops out from the lists of crops and the prairie species their cultivation has pushed to the edge of extinction. This is deeply place based writing, with the headings of multipart poems giving coordinates. Elegies tell the stories behind the names in a local graveyard, including Ukrainian immigrants. Many of these are tragic tales of failure: “neck in the noose of profit margins and farm credit” (from “NE 10 36 22 W2ND”). Benning and her sister, Heather, who took the Ansel Adams-like black-and-white photographs that illustrate the book, toured derelict farms and abandoned homes:

pull yourself through the kitchen window,

glass shot out decades ago. Breathe the charnel reek,

the cracked-open casket of the nation’s turn-of-the-century bullshit-

promises, adipose gleam of barley and wheat. (from “SW 26 36 22 W2ND”)

I attended the online launch event last night and enjoyed hearing Benning read from the book and converse with Karen Solie about its origins. Benning’s parents were farmers up until the late 1990s, then returned to diversified farming in the late 2000s. Solie aptly referred to the book as “incantatory.” With its ecological conscience, personal engagement and liturgical sound, this is just my kind of poetry. If you’ve been thinking about the issues with land use and food production raised by the likes of Wendell Berry and James Rebanks, you shouldn’t miss it.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

100 Poets: A Little Anthology by John Carey

John Carey is among the UK’s most respected literary critics. I’ve read several of his books over the years, including his outstanding memoir, The Unexpected Professor. This anthology, a sort of follow-up to his A Little History of Poetry (2020), chooses 100 top poets and then opines on what he considers their best work. The book is organized chronologically, proceeding from Homer to Maya Angelou. Sticking mostly to English-language and American, British or Commonwealth poets (with just a handful of Continental selections, like Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke, in translation), Carey delivers mini-essays with biographical information and historical background.

There is some inconsistency in terms of the amount of context and interpretation given, however. For some poets, there may be just a line or two of text, followed by a reprinted poem (Richard Wilbur, Les Murray); for others, there are paragraphs’ worth of explanations, interspersed with excerpts (Andrew Marvell, Thomas Gray). Some choices are obvious; others are deliberately obscure (e.g., eschewing Robert Frost’s and Philip Larkin’s better-known poems in favour of “Out, Out” and “The Explosion”). The diversity is fairly low, and you can see Carey’s age in some of his introductions: “Edward Lear was gay, and felt a little sad when friends got married”; “Alfred Edward Housman was gay, and he thought it unjust that he should be made to feel guilty about something that was part of his nature.” There’s way too much First and Second World War poetry here. And can a poet really be one of the 100 greatest ever when I’ve never heard of them? (May Wedderburn Cannan, anyone?)

Unsurprisingly, I was most engaged with the pieces on Victorian and Modernist poets since those are the periods I studied at university and still love the most, but there were a few individual poems I was glad to discover, such as Ben Jonson’s “On My First Sonne,” written upon his death from bubonic plague, and Edward Thomas’s “Old Man,” as well as many I was happy to encounter again. This would be a good introduction for literature students as well as laypeople wanting to brush up on their poetry.

With thanks to Yale University Press, London for the proof copy for review.

 

Nonfiction

 

No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler

(Below is my Shelf Awareness review, reprinted with permission.)

In her bittersweet second memoir, a religion professor finds the joys and ironies in a life overshadowed by advanced cancer.

When Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer at age 35, her chances of surviving two years were just 14%. In No Cure for Being Human, her wry, touching follow-up to her 2018 memoir Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) and its associated podcast, she continues to combat unhelpful religious/self-help mantras as she ponders what to do with the extra time medical breakthroughs have given her.

After multiple surgeries, a promising immunotherapy drug trial gave Bowler hope that she would live to see her 40th birthday and her young son starting kindergarten. Working on her bucket list, she found that small moments outshined large events: on a trip to the Grand Canyon, what stood out was a chapel in the ponderosa pinewoods where she added a prayer to those plastering the walls. In the Church calendar, “Ordinary Time” is where most of life plays out, so she encourages readers to live in an “eternal present.”

The chapters function like stand-alone essays, some titled after particular truisms (like “You Only Live Once”). The book’s bittersweet tone finds the humor as well as the tragedy in a cancer diagnosis. Witty recreated dialogue and poignant scenes show the type-A author learning to let go: “I am probably replaceable,” she acknowledges, but here in the shadow of death “the mundane has begun to sparkle.” These dispatches from the “lumpy middle” of life and faith are especially recommended to fans of Anne Lamott.


(If you’ve read her previous book, Everything Happens for a Reason, you may find, as I did, that there is a little too much repetition about her diagnosis and early treatment. The essays could also probably be structured more successfully. But it’s still well worth reading.)

With thanks to Rider Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Elements: A Widowhood by Kat Lister

This story hit all too close to home to me: like Kat Lister, my sister was widowed in her thirties, her husband having endured gruelling years of treatment for brain cancer that caused seizures and memory loss. Lister’s husband, Pat Long, was a fellow journalist. Cancer was with them for the entire span of their short marriage, and infertility treatment didn’t succeed in giving them the children they longed for.

Although it moves back and forth in time, the memoir skims over the happy before and the torturous middle, mostly shining a light on the years after Pat died in 2018. Lister probes her emotional state and the ways in which she met or defied people’s expectations of a young widow. Even when mired in grief, she was able to pass as normal: to go to work, to attend social functions wearing leopard print. She writes of a return trip to Mexico, where she’d gone with Pat, and in some detail of the sexual reawakening she experienced after his death. But everyday demands could threaten to sink her even when life-or-death moments hadn’t.

Writing helped her process her feelings, and the Wellcome Library was a refuge where she met her predecessors in bereavement literature. While some of the literary points of reference are familiar (Joan Didion, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, C.S. Lewis), others are unexpected, and the overall Fire­–Water–Earth–Air structure creates thematic unity in a similar way as the constellations do in Molly Wizenberg’s The Fixed Stars. Giving shape and dignity to grief, this is a lovely, comforting read.

A favourite passage:

When I talk of my husband, I often speak of disparate worlds. Mine is inside time, his is supertemporal. I continue to age whilst my husband stays fixed in a past I am drifting further away from with every sentence that I type. And yet, like those luminous balls of plasma in the sky, we are still connected together, for all time is cyclical. I hold the elements within me.

With thanks to Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Catching Up on Review Books: Antlers, Arnett, E. Williams, Yamboliev

Four July–August releases: Scottish nature writing, the quirky story of a family taxidermy business in Florida, a dual-timeline novel set at an unusual dictionary’s headquarters, and a critical and personal response to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.

 

Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie

This nature writing anthology of essays, poems and visual art drew me because of contributor names like GP Gavin Francis (reviewed: Shapeshifters), Amy Liptrot (the Wainwright Prize-winning memoir The Outrun), singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, and Shetland chronicler Malachy Tallack (reviewed: The Un-Discovered Islands and The Valley at the Centre of the World), not to mention editor Kathleen Jamie. Archaeology and folk music evoke the past, while climate change scenarios inject a sense of a menacing future. Seabirds circle and coastal and island scenery recurs. Entries from Alec Finlay’s “A Place-Aware Dictionary” disguise political points under tongue-in-cheek language, as in a definition of foraging: “Later sometimes referred to as the Brexit Diet.” The (sub)urban could be more evident, and I didn’t need two bouts of red deer sex, but there’s still a nice mix of tones and approaches here.

Six best pieces (out of 24): Chris Powici on wind turbines and red kites at the Braes of Doune; Jacqueline Bain on how reduced mobility allows her to observe wasps closely; Jim Crumley on sea eagle reintroductions and the ancient sky burials that took place at the Tomb of the Eagles; Jen Hadfield on foraging for whelks at the ocean’s edge, in a run-on hybrid narrative; Sally Huband on how persecution of ravens and of women (still not allowed to take part in Up Helly Aa festivities) continues on Shetland; and Liptrot on how wild swimming prepared her for childbirth and helped her to recover a sense of herself separate from her baby. And if I had to pick just one, the Huband – so brave and righteously angry.

Favorite lines:

“Compromises need to be made. An overlap between the wild and the human has to be negotiated and managed. … So let’s play merry hell with the distinction between what counts as wild and what counts as human, between what’s condemned as a visual obscenity and what’s seen as a marvel of the age. Let’s mess up the boundaries and get a new measure of ourselves as a species.” (Powici)

inspiration to get out walking again: “Don’t wait / thinking you’ve seen it all already … don’t wait thinking you need better boots / or a waterproof that’ll keep out the rain. / It won’t. Don’t wait.” (“Water of Ae” by Em Strang)

My rating:


My thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

  

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

“We couldn’t ever leave roadkill behind. Something inside us always made us stop to pick up dead things.”

After her father’s suicide, Jessa-Lynn Morton takes over the family taxidermy business in central Florida. Despite her excessive drinking and grief over both her father and her best friend and long-time on-and-off girlfriend (also, inconveniently, her brother’s wife) Brynn, who recently took off, she’s just about holding it together. That is, until 1) her mother takes to composing interspecies orgies and S&M scenes in the shop window and 2) her niece and nephew, Lolee and Bastien, start bringing in specimens for taxidermy that they haven’t exactly obtained legally. Gallery owner Lucinda Rex takes an interest in her mother’s ‘art’ and is soon a new romantic interest for Jessa. But the entire family is going to have to face its issues before her professional and love life can be restored.

This debut novel’s title, cover and premise were utterly irresistible to me, and though I loved the humid Florida setting, it was all a bit too much. At 200 pages this could have been a razor-sharp new favorite, but instead there was a lot of sag in its 350+ pages. Alternating chapters based around mounting particular animals give glimpses into the family’s past but mostly have Jessa mooning over Brynn. Her emotional journey starts to feel belabored; it’s as if an editor tried to rein in Arnett’s campy glee at the dysfunctional family’s breakdown and made her add in some amateur psychoanalysis, and for me this diluted the quirky joy.

Skinning and sex scenes are equally explicit here. This never bothered me, but it should go without saying that it is not a book for the squeamish. It’s when sex and taxidermy mix that things get a little icky, as in her mother’s X-rated tableaux and a line like “Often I found myself comparing the limber body of a deer with the long line of [Lucinda’s] legs or the strong cord of her neck.” Believe it or not, this is not the first queer taxidermy novel I’ve read. The other one, English Animals by Laura Kaye, was better. I’d wanted another Swamplandia! but got something closer to Black Light instead.

My rating:


My thanks to Corsair for the free copy for review.

 

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Mallory is five years into an internship at Swansby House, the London headquarters of Swansby’s dictionary. The dictionary is known for being unfinished – too many of its lexicographers left for WWI and never returned – and for having made-up words. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, the butt of jokes among his colleagues, started composing mountweazels (fake entries) and inserting them into the dictionary. In the contemporary story line, Mallory’s job is to remove the mountweazels as the dictionary is prepared for digitization. But her attention is distracted by anonymous bomb threats and by lingering shame about her sexuality – Mallory thinks she’s “out enough,” but her girlfriend Pip begs to differ.

Chapters are headed with vocabulary words running from A to Z, and alternate between Mallory’s first-person narration and a third-person account of Winceworth’s misadventures at the turn of the twentieth century. In any book with this kind of structure I seem to prefer the contemporary strand and itch to get back to it, though there is a quite astounding scene in which Winceworth intervenes to help a choking pelican. Events at Swansby House resonate and mirror each other across the dozen decades, with both main characters emerging with a new sense of purpose after an epiphany that life is about more than work. Though silly in places, this has a winning love of words and characters you’ll care about.

A favorite made-up word: “Mammonsomniate: to dream that money might make anything possible.”

Readalikes: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony and Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

My rating:


My thanks to William Heinemann for the proof copy for review.

 

Looking Was Not Enough: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex by Irena Yamboliev

When I worked in a university library and read Middlesex during quiet evenings on the circulation desk in 2009, a colleague asked me, “Is that about the London borough?” My reply: “Er, no, it’s about a hermaphrodite.” That’s an off-putting, clinical sort of word, but it does appear in the first paragraph of this family saga with a difference, after the mythological intensity and medical necessity implied by the killer opening line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Cal, born Calliope but now living as a man and working in the Foreign Service, recounts three generations of family history, from Greece to Detroit to Berlin. “Because … their parents were dead and their village destroyed, because no one in Smyrna knew who they were,” brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona became lovers and got married on the boat over to America. They were his grandparents. Add to that his parents’ first-cousin marriage and you see how inbreeding played genetic havoc and made way for Callie/Cal.

I intended to reread Middlesex, which I consider one of my all-time favorite books, but only made it through 60 pages on this occasion. Still, Yamboliev, a Bulgarian-American who teaches at Stanford, reminded me of everything I love about it: the medical theme, the exploration of selfhood, the playful recreation of the past. Drawing parallels with her own family’s move to America, she ponders the disconnection from the home country and the creation of a new life story. “To tell ourselves where we come from—to narrate—is to find a pattern retroactively.” She also looks at literary precursors like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Herculine Barbin’s memoir, and Balzac’s and Barthes’s writings on a castrato. “Does transformation make the self discontinuous?” is one of her central questions, and she likens Cal’s situation to that of trans men who have to train themselves to speak, dress and act in a convincingly masculine way.

This is part of Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series; all its monographs do a wonderful job of blending literary criticism, enthusiastic appreciation, and autobiographical reflection as life dovetails with (re)reading. I’ve previously reviewed the Fiction Advocate books on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post, and the ones on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in this one.

My rating:


My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?