In January 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to have a free bibliotherapy session at the School of Life in London with Ella Berthoud, one of the authors of The Novel Cure. I wrote about the experience in this post. I quickly got hold of all but a couple of my prescribed reads, but have been slower about actually reading them. Though I’ve read five now, I’ve only written up four, two of which I only managed to finish this week. (These 250-word reviews are in order of my reading.)
Heligoland by Shena Mackay (2002)
(CURE: moving house)
Heligoland is a Scottish island best known from the shipping forecast, but here it’s an almost mythical home. Rowena Snow was orphaned by her Indian/Scottish parents, and a second time by her aunt. Since then she’s drifted between caring and cleaning jobs. The Nautilus represents a fresh chance at life. This shell-shaped artists’ commune in South London houses just three survivors: Celeste Zylberstein, who designed the place; poet Francis Campion; and antiques dealer Gus Crabb. Rowena will be the housekeeper/cook, but she struggles with self-esteem: does she deserve to live in a haven for upper-class creative types?
The omniscient perspective moves between the Nautilus residents but also on to lots of other minor hangers-on, whose stories are hard to keep track of. Mackay’s writing reminded me somewhat of Tessa Hadley’s and is lovely in places – especially when describing a buffet or a moment of light-filled epiphany in a garden. There’s not much to be said beyond what’s in the blurb: Mackay is attempting to give a picture of a drifter who finds an unconventional home; in the barest sense she does succeed, but I never felt a connection with any of the characters. In this ensemble cast there is no one to love and thus no one to root for. While I didn’t love this book, it did inspire me to pick up others by Mackay: since then I’ve read The Orchard on Fire, which I liked a lot more, and the first half of Dunedin.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)
(CURE: worry over ageing parents)
Retired professor Nariman Vakeel, 79, has Parkinson’s disease and within the first few chapters has also fallen and broken his ankle. His grown stepchildren, Coomy and Jal, reluctant to care for him anyway, decide they can’t cope with the daily reality of bedpans, sponge baths and spoon feeding in their large Chateau Felicity apartment. He’ll simply have to recuperate at Pleasant Villa with his daughter Roxana and her husband and sons, even though their two-bedroom apartment is barely large enough for the family of four. You have to wince at the irony of the names for these two Bombay housing blocks, and at the bitter contrast between selfishness and duty.
Perhaps inevitably, Nariman starts to fade into the background. An increasingly speechless invalid, he only comes alive through his past: italicized sections, presented as his night-time ravings, tell of his love for Lucy, whom his parents refused to let him marry, and the untimely end of his arranged marriage. I enjoyed time spent in a vibrantly realized Indian city and appreciated a chance to learn about a lesser-known community: Nariman and family are Parsis (or Zoroastrians). There’s also a faint echo here of King Lear, with one faithful daughter set against two wicked children.
As to ageing parents, this is a pretty relentlessly bleak picture, but there are sparks of light: joy in life’s little celebrations, and unexpected kindnesses. Mistry’s epic has plenty of tender moments that bring it down to an intimate scale. I’m keen to read his other novels.
Maggie & Me by Damian Barr (2013)
(A supplementary prescription because I love memoirs and didn’t experience Thatcher’s Britain.)
Like a cross between Angela’s Ashes and Toast, this recreates a fairly horrific upbringing from the child’s perspective. Barr was an intelligent, creative young man who early on knew that he was gay and, not just for that reason, often felt that there was no place for him: neither in working-class Scotland, where his father was a steelworker and his brain-damaged mother flitted from one violent boyfriend to another; nor in Maggie Thatcher’s 1980s Britain at large, in which money was the reward for achievement and the individual was responsible for his own moral standing and worldly advancement. “I don’t need to stand out any more,” he recalls, being “six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”
There are a lot of vivid scenes in this memoir, some of them distressing ones of abuse, and the present tense, dialect, and childish grammar and slang give it authenticity. However, I never quite bought in to the Thatcher connection as an overarching structure. Three pages at the start, five at the end, and a Thatcher quote as an epigraph for each chapter somehow weren’t enough to convince me that the framing device was necessary or apt. Still, I enjoyed this well enough as memoirs go, and I would certainly recommend it if you loved Nigel Slater’s memoir mentioned above. I also have Barr’s recent debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, on my Kindle.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
(A supplementary prescription for uncertainty about having children.)
I enjoyed this immensely, from the first line on: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Upton is back in her hometown, pregnant by her older, married archaeology professor after a summer of PhD fieldwork in Alaska. “I had come home to be a child again. I was sick, heartbroken, worn down.” She gives herself a few weeks back home to dig through her family history to find her father – whom Vi has never identified – and decide whether she’s ready to be a mother herself.
We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. Groff gives voice to everyone from a Mohican chief to a slave girl who catches her master’s eye. Willie and Vi are backed up by a wonderful set of secondary characters, past and present. Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. (If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably for the baseball museum; it’s not far from where my mother is from in upstate New York.) Templeton is “a slantwise version” of Cooperstown, Groff admits in an opening Author’s Note, and she owes something of a debt to its most famous citizen, James Fenimore Cooper. What a charming way to celebrate where you come from, with all its magic and mundanity. This terrific debut novel cemented my love of Groff’s work.
I also have Ella to thank for the inspiration to reread a childhood favorite, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, last year; the experiment formed the subject of my first piece for Literary Hub. I also worked my way through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, another of my prescriptions, over a number of months in 2018, but failed to keep up with the regular writing exercises so didn’t get the maximum benefit.
My husband and I made a start on reading a few books aloud to each other, including Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, but that fell by the wayside after a handful of weeks.
(Incidentally, I had forgotten that Cutting for Stone turns up in The Novel Cure on a list of the 10 best books to combat xenophobia.)
Still to read: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (CURE: horror of ageing)
And one I still have to get hold of but haven’t been able to find cheap secondhand because it’s a Persephone classic: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (a supplementary prescription because I love Victorian pastiches).
Can’t believe I let the summer slip away again
Like watermelon juice dripping down my chin
It might be light enough for one last swim
If we hurry on down to the shore
A fool would ask for more
A fool would ask for more
~from “August” by Mark Erelli
Summer is winding down here in southern England. The chilly nights and mornings and the huge ripe blackberries tell us autumn will be here soon. Did I make enough of the summer? Or did I so ardently escape the heat, here and in America, that I didn’t let myself enjoy it?
We didn’t end up making a summer pudding this year. It’s an old-fashioned, grown-up dessert made of almost nothing but white bread and fresh berries, but if you want to taste July in a bowl this is it. Sweetness from strawberries and raspberries; only just palatable sharpness from currants; smoothness from a generous pouring of cream. As my husband says each year, who knows how many more annual summer puddings we’ll get? Food traditions are as important a way of marking the passing of time and the seasons’ gifts as anything else.
I’ve had “August” by Mark Erelli, a New England folk singer/songwriter we discovered through The Darwin Song Project, in my head for weeks and weeks. It presents scenes from a languid summer evening that appeal to my nostalgia for my American childhood. More than that, though, its recurring line – “A fool would ask for more” – encourages me to be grateful for what I have and to appreciate these ordinary, fleeting moments.
“You’re one of those people who wants everything but what they have.” So Ruth, dying of breast cancer, skewers her best friend Ann, the narrator of Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg. That line stung a little, because I fear it’s true of me. When I’m in America I’m silently contemptuous of the lavish lifestyle and the can-do attitude; as soon as I’m back in England I stew in my cluttered house and my shabby little life. I envy friends with design magazine-worthy homes (but I don’t want the hassle of owning a house), sweet kids (but I don’t want to have children), stable careers (but I don’t want a regular job), and comfortable habits not needled by environmental and ethical dilemmas (but once you know you can’t go back).
My five-year freelancing anniversary passed quietly at the end of July. Being a freelancer has all the perks you’d expect – no boss or co-workers, at least not in the traditional sense; no commute; flexibility; variety – but also some downsides you might not realize. In my case, it means I virtually never leave my house, and I’m sedentary and sitting most of the time. I don’t get vacation time or sick pay, I have to muddle through my taxes in two countries, and I put hours and hours of work into assignments that pay insultingly little.
When asked recently for advice about freelance writing, I warned that it is extremely difficult to make money from writing about books – so if you want to do it, be sure you’re just doing it for the love of books, and secure another source of income. For me that’s proofreading science journal articles. It’s something I’m good at and find just challenging enough to keep me stimulated, but if I’m honest I don’t really care about this work. It’s just a paycheck.
To put it simply, I’m bored. Some of my writing gigs have spanned the full five years, and I’m still doing exactly the same things. I’ve had a couple small pay rises, but I’m not earning significantly more than I was in 2013, even though I was recently named an associate editor at one of the magazines (an honorary title, alas). I feel restless and like I’m just waiting for the smallest signal to tell me I can drop everything. It would be a relief to let it all go. Julia Cameron captures this feeling in The Artist’s Way: “Restive in our lives, we yearn for more, we wish, we chafe. … We want to do something but we think it needs to be the right something, by which we mean something important.”
So really what I should be doing is aiming higher. I’m now a member of the National Book Critics Circle and have access to a document listing the pay rates for big-name venues, places that pay hundreds of dollars for book reviews and $1+/word for literary articles. But it often takes me months to get up the courage to pitch to a new publication, if I ever do it at all.
In Help Me! (out on September 6th), freelance journalist Marianne Power took on a different self-help book each month for a year to see if she could change her life for the better. One particularly rough month was all about Rejection Therapy. “I should have been constantly sending ideas to different publications but I didn’t. … I didn’t want to get rejected because I would take that as a confirmation of all the insecurities I had in my head – that I was a rubbish writer, that I had been lucky to get even this far, that I would never work again.”
That passage certainly resonated for me. No matter how many hundreds of reviews I write, I still barely trust myself to write another successful one. Temporary triumphs fade fast. Getting a pitch accepted at Literary Hub had been one of the highlights of my year, but pretty much as soon as the article was published on the website I felt deflated. It was a flash in the pan; a few comments and retweets and then it was forgotten before you know it.
I didn’t think I was a flighty person who needed a lot of novelty in my life. But Beryl Markham – lion hunter, horse trainer, aviatrix – has been reminding me that even if you have a good life that many would admire, even if you’d be a fool to ask for more, sometimes you still need a change. Here’s a passage from the formidable adventurer’s West with the Night: “I wonder if I should have a change – a year in Europe this time – something new, something better, perhaps. A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. … it is no good anticipating regrets. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”
My 35th birthday is coming up this autumn. It feels like time for a rethink. What do I want every tomorrow to look like? It’s all too easy to stick with what feels like a sure thing instead of launching into something new.
How do you ensure you’re appreciating your life but also challenging yourself with new things?
Next month marks five years that I’ve been a freelance reviewer, and I turn 35 later in the year. With these milestones in mind, I’ve been pushing myself a bit more to make contact with new publications and try to get my work out there more widely.
Most recently, I was pleased to have my first article in Literary Hub, an essay about rereading Little Women in its 150th anniversary year in conjunction with the new BBC/PBS miniseries production. (I shared this article intensively on social media, so do forgive me if you’ve already seen it somewhere else!) This is the first time, apart from here on the blog, that I’ve blended book commentary with personal material. I think it’s probably the best “exposure” I’ve had for my writing thus far: last time I looked, Literary Hub’s Facebook post about the article had gotten 123 likes and 33 shares, with 71 likes and 22 retweets on Twitter.
[Note: I now know that the spelling is Katharine Hepburn and have asked twice over e-mail for the editor to correct it, but it’s clearly very low on their list of priorities!]
I continue to review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on a regular basis. My latest review was quite a negative one, alas, for Richard Flanagan’s First Person (). Upcoming: Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau () and A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits.
I reviewed Florida by Lauren Groff (), my fiction book of the year so far, for Stylist magazine. This is the fourth time I’ve volunteered for their “Book Wars” column, but the first time I’ve ‘won’ – I attribute it to the high class of book!
Bylines coming later in the summer:
- A dual review of two nature-themed memoirs in the Times Literary Supplement (June 15th issue). This is my third piece for the TLS, but as it’s a longer one it feels a little more ‘real’.
- An essay on two books about “wasting time” (including Alan Lightman’s) in the Los Angeles Review of Books (June 20th).
- A dual review of a memoir and a poetry volume by African writers in Wasafiri literary magazine (Issue 95).
Upcoming work, with no publication date yet:
- A dual review of two death-themed poetry collections for PN Review.
- Two book lists for OZY, one on the refugee crisis and another on compassion in medicine.
- A review essay on Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman for Glamour Online.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
Iowa 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.
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.”
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.
As 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.”
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?”
Back in December I shared my excitement upon discovering The Book Thing of Baltimore on a trip back to visit my family in the States. Run entirely through volunteers and donations, it’s an unassuming warehouse where you can go and get as many FREE books as you want. I was in heaven there, as you might imagine.
Well, on March 2nd Book Thing suffered a fire that has temporarily closed it down. Books + fire = incredibly sad. Their space is currently unusable and much of the stock was destroyed.
Here’s a great LitHub article about Book Thing and the post-fire strategy. Clean-up efforts are still underway and it’s unclear how soon they can think about reopening.
If you’re local, keep an eye on their Facebook page to see how you can help out. Or, no matter where you are, you can join me in giving a donation via their home page.
“Our mission is to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them,” they say. I hope they’ll be able to do just that again very soon.