Three on a Theme: Queer Family-Making
Several 2021 memoirs have given me a deeper understanding of the special challenges involved when queer couples decide they want to have children.
“It’s a fundamentally queer principle to build a family out of the pieces you have”
“That’s the thing[:] there are no accidental children born to homosexuals – these babies are always planned for, and always wanted.”
The Other Mothers by Jennifer Berney
Berney remembers hearing the term “test-tube baby” for the first time in a fifth-grade sex ed class taught by a lesbian teacher at her Quaker school. By that time she already had an inkling of her sexuality, so suspected that she might one day require fertility help herself.
By the time she met her partner, Kellie, she knew she wanted to be a mother; Kellie was unsure. Once they were finally on the same page, it wasn’t an easy road to motherhood. They purchased donated sperm through a fertility clinic and tried IUI, but multiple expensive attempts failed. Signs of endometriosis had doctors ready to perform invasive surgery, but in the meantime the couple had met a friend of a friend (Daniel, whose partner was Rebecca) who was prepared to be their donor. Their at-home inseminations resulted in a pregnancy – after two years of trying to conceive – and, ultimately, in their son. Three years later, they did the whole thing all over again. Rebecca had sons at roughly the same time, too, giving their boys the equivalent of same-age cousins – a lovely, unconventional extended family.
It surprised me that the infertility business seemed entirely set up for heterosexual couples – so much so that a doctor diagnosed the problem, completely seriously, in Berney’s chart as “Male Factor Infertility.” This was in Washington state in c. 2008, before the countrywide legalization of gay marriage, so it’s possible the situation would be different now, or that the couple would have had a different experience had they been based somewhere like San Francisco where there is a wide support network and many gay-friendly resources.
Berney finds the joy and absurdity in their journey as well as the many setbacks. I warmed to the book as it went along: early on, it dragged a bit as she surveyed her younger years and traced the history of IVF and alternatives like international adoption. As the storyline drew closer to the present day, there was more detail and tenderness and I was more engaged. I’d read more from this author. (Published by Sourcebooks. Read via NetGalley)
small: on motherhoods by Claire Lynch
A line from Berney’s memoir makes a good transition into this one: “I felt a sense of dread: if I turned out to be gay I believed my life would become unbearably small.” The word “small” is a sort of totem here, a reminder of the microscopic processes and everyday miracles that go into making babies, as well as of the vulnerability of newborns – and of hope.
Lynch and her partner Beth’s experience in England was reminiscent of Berney’s in many ways, but with a key difference: through IVF, Lynch’s eggs were added to donor sperm to make the embryos implanted in Beth’s uterus. Mummy would have the genetic link, Mama the physical tie of carrying and birthing. It took more than three years of infertility treatment before they conceived their twin girls, born premature; they were followed by another daughter, creating a crazy but delightful female quintet. The account of the time when their daughters were in incubators reminded me of Francesca Segal’s Mother Ship.
There are two intriguing structural choices that make small stand out. The first you’d notice from opening the book at random, or to page 1. It is written in a hybrid form, the phrases and sentences laid out more like poetry. Although there are some traditional expository paragraphs, more often the words are in stanzas or indented. Here’s an example of what this looks like on the page. It also happens to be from one of the most ironically funny parts of the book, when Lynch is grouped in with the dads at an antenatal class:
It’s a fast-flowing, artful style that may remind readers of Bernardine Evaristo’s work (and indeed, Evaristo gives one of the puffs). The second interesting decision was to make the book turn on a revelation: at the exact halfway mark we learn that, initially, the couple intended to have opposite roles: Lynch tried to get pregnant with Beth’s baby, but miscarried. Making this the pivot point of the memoir emphasizes the struggle and grief of this experience, even though we know that it had a happy ending.
With thanks to Brazen Books for the free copy for review.
How We Do Family by Trystan Reese
We mostly have Trystan Reese to thank for the existence of a pregnant man emoji. A community organizer who works on anti-racist and LGBTQ justice campaigns, Reese is a trans man married to a man named Biff. They expanded their family in two unexpected ways: first by adopting Biff’s niece and nephew when his sister’s situation of poverty and drug abuse meant she couldn’t take care of them, and then by getting pregnant in the natural (is that even the appropriate word?) way.
All along, Reese sought to be transparent about the journey, with a crowdfunding project and podcast ahead of the adoption, and media coverage of the pregnancy. This opened the family up to a lot of online hatred. I found myself most interested in the account of the pregnancy itself, and how it might have healed or exacerbated a sense of bodily trauma. Reese was careful to have only in-the-know and affirming people in the delivery room so there would be no surprises for anyone. His doctor was such an ally that he offered to create a more gender-affirming C-section scar (vertical rather than horizontal) if it came to it. How to maintain a sense of male identity while giving birth? Well, Reese told Biff not to look at his crotch during the delivery, and decided not to breastfeed.
I realized when reading this and Detransition, Baby that my view of trans people is mostly post-op because of the only trans person I know personally, but a lot of people choose never to get surgical confirmation of gender (or maybe surgery is more common among trans women?). We’ve got to get past the obsession with genitals. As Reese writes, “we are just loving humans, like every human throughout all of time, who have brought a new life into this world. Nothing more than that, and nothing less. Just humans.”
This is a very fluid, quick read that recreates scenes and conversations with aplomb, and there are self-help sections after most chapters about how to be flexible and have productive dialogue within a family and with strangers. If literary prose and academic-level engagement with the issues are what you’re after, you’d want to head to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts instead, but I also appreciated Reese’s unpretentious firsthand view.
And here’s further evidence of my own bias: the whole time I was reading, I felt sure that Reese must be the figure on the right with reddish hair, since that looked like a person who could once have been a woman. But when I finished reading I looked up photos; there are many online of Reese during pregnancy. And NOPE, he is the bearded, black-haired one! That’ll teach me to make assumptions. (Published by The Experiment. Read via NetGalley)
Plus a bonus essay from the Music.Football.Fatherhood anthology, DAD:
“A Journey to Gay Fatherhood: Surrogacy – The Unimaginable, Manageable” by Michael Johnson-Ellis
The author and his husband Wes had both previously been married to women before they came out. Wes already had a daughter, so they decided Johnson-Ellis would be the genetic father the first time. They then had different egg donors for their two children, but used the same surrogate for both pregnancies. I was astounded at the costs involved: £32,000 just to bring their daughter into being. And it’s striking both how underground the surrogacy process is (in the UK it’s illegal to advertise for a surrogate) and how exclusionary systems are – the couple had to fight to be in the room when their surrogate gave birth, and had to go to court to be named the legal guardians when their daughter was six weeks old. Since then, they’ve given testimony at the Houses of Parliament and become advocates for UK surrogacy.
(I have a high school acquaintance who has gone down this route with his husband – they’re about to meet their daughter and already have a two-year-old son – so I was curious to know more about it, even though their process in the USA might be subtly different.)
On the subject of queer family-making, I have also read: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson () and The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg ().
If you read just one … Claire Lynch’s small was the one I enjoyed most as a literary product, but if you want to learn more about the options and process you might opt for Jennifer Berney’s The Other Mothers; if you’re particularly keen to explore trans issues and LGTBQ activism, head to Trystan Reese’s How We Do Family.
Have you read anything on this topic?
Three May Releases: Climate Change, a Son’s Elegy, and Sexual Fluidity
I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.
She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.
Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.
Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)
Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.
Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.
My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”
A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.
I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”
In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.
By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)
And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.
Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.
I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).
I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.
I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Two Records of Bodily Transformation: Amateur and Shapeshifters
Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee
Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden. In his second memoir, which arose from a Quartz article entitled “Why Men Fight,” he recounts the training leading up to his charity match and ponders whether aggression is a natural male trait. McBee grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh with a stepfather who sexually abused him from age four. In 2011 he started the testosterone injections that would begin his gender transformation. During the years that followed, other men seemed to pick fights with him fairly often, and he was unsure what to do about it. Finally, in 2015, the Manhattan editor decided to confront the belligerent male stereotype by starting boxing training.
What I most appreciated were the author’s observations of how others have related to him since his transition. He notices that he’s taken more seriously at work as a man, and that he can be an object of fear – when jogging behind a woman at night, for instance. One of the most eye-opening moments of the book is when he realizes that he’s been talking over his own sister. Thankfully, McBee is sensitive enough to stop and change, recognizing that kindness and vulnerability are not faults but attributes any person should be proud of.
I have a feeling I would have preferred his previous memoir, Man Alive, which sounds like it has more about the transition itself. Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and in comparison I didn’t find the boxing writing here very interesting. Likewise, this pales beside two similar but more perceptive books I’ve read that have been hugely influential on my own understanding of gender identity: Conundrum by Jan Morris and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
Amateur was published in the UK by Canongate on August 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Shapeshifters: On Medicine and Human Change by Gavin Francis
Gavin Francis is a physician with a practice near Edinburgh. His latest book is like a taster course in medical topics. The overarching theme is the modifications the body undergoes, so there are chapters on, for example, body-building, tattoos, puberty, prosthetic limbs, dementia and menopause. Over his years in general practice Francis has gotten to know his patients’ stories and seen them change, for better or worse. These anecdotes of transformation are one source for his book, but he also applies insight from history, mythology, literature, etymology and more. So in a chapter on conception he discusses the Virgin Mary myth, Leonardo da Vinci’s fetal diagrams, the physiological changes pregnant women experience, and the case of a patient, Hannah, who had three difficult, surprise pregnancies in quick succession.
We are all in the process of various transformations, Francis argues, whether by choice or involuntarily. (I decided on the link with McBee because of a chapter on sex changes.) I was less convinced by the author’s inclusion of temporary, reversible changes such as sleep, hallucinations, jet lag and laughter. And while each chapter is finely wrought, I felt some sort of chronological or anatomical order was necessary to give the book more focus. All the same, I suspect this will be a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize because of its broad relevance to human health and its compassionate picture of bodies in flux.
Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
My Top 10 Nonfiction Reads of 2017
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly 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.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading
Library Checkout: August 2017
A thin month for library books overall, although I did read two very good ones. The Aldo Leopold book is a nature classic I’m pleased we could find via the library of the university where my husband works. In the second week of September I’m going along with him to Ghent, Belgium, where he’ll be presenting a research paper at a landscape ecology conference. Though we’ve been before, it’s a lovely town I’ll enjoy wandering – in between keeping up a normal virtual workload. After that we head on to Amsterdam for a long weekend; it’ll be my first time there and I’m excited to take in all the sights.
LIBRARY BOOKS READ
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
From my parents’ local branch in America:
- Sparky! by Jenny Offill [a picture book illustrated by Chris Appelhans]
- A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
- Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving by Julia Samuel
CHECKED OUT, TO BE SKIMMED
- 2 guide books to Belgium
- 2 guide books to Amsterdam
- White Tears by Hari Kunzru – I read the first 145 pages, skimmed another 70 or so, then gave up. The vibe is Jonathan Franzen meets Zadie Smith circa The Autograph Man; the theme is cultural appropriation, especially of a blues song by a forgotten master. (I had the song from The Wire in my head the whole time.) My interest started to wane after what happens to Carter happens, and by the time the parallel road trips kicked in I was lost. So to what extent this was realist or magic realist or absurdist or whatever I couldn’t tell you. I liked the writing enough that I would try something else by Kunzru if I thought I’d connect to the subject matter more.
(Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.)
Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?
Library Checkout: July 2017
I’m flying out to America later today on a short trip for my sister’s wedding, so I’ve been focusing on finishing most of the books I have out from the library, including some that have hung around for a number of months already. I’ll have just one or two awaiting me on my return.
(Ratings and links to any books that I haven’t already featured here in some way or don’t plan to soon.)
LIBRARY BOOKS READ
- Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler
- Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees by Dave Goulson
- A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
- Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
LIBRARY BOOKS SKIMMED
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – I’ll either take this with me or put it on hold until I come back; I haven’t decided as of the time of scheduling this post. In any case, it’s the sort of fragmentary narrative that doesn’t have to be read all at once.
CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ
- White Tears by Hari Kunzru
- Human Acts by Han Kang – I read the first 115 pages and then set this aside, not because it was too harrowing or challenging, but simply because I’d been bored for at least 45 pages and didn’t have the patience to see how the various chapters, each from a different perspective (2nd person, then 1st, then 3rd) might fit together.
- Tiny Giants by Nate Powell – I glanced at the first few pages of this graphic novel but didn’t like the drawing style or the narration.
(Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.)
Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?
First Encounter: Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson is the author of four volumes of poetry and five wide-ranging works of nonfiction that delve into the nature of violence and sexuality. From what I’d heard about her writing, I knew to expect an important and unconventional thinker with a distinctive, lyrical style. As of early June, Vintage has made some of her backlist, including The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial and Bluets, available for the first time in the UK.
I read The Red Parts for The Bookbag. Here’s an excerpt from my full review:
Nelson’s aunt was murdered in Michigan in 1969. Thirty-five years later, just as Nelson had completed writing a poetry collection about her, the case was reopened when new DNA evidence emerged. Most authors would quickly zero in on the trial itself, giving a blow-by-blow of the lawyers’ questioning and witnesses’ statements. Although Nelson does document important developments in the month-long trial, and describes autopsy photographs in blunt detail, her account is much more diffuse than one might expect. Interspersed with Jane’s history are other dark memories: Nelson’s father’s sudden death, her sister’s wild years, aborted love affairs. The title phrase tangentially refers to the words of Jesus in the New Testament, traditionally printed in red, so it has a sort of dual meaning: this is a (futile) search for the gospel truth about her aunt’s death, and also a conscious dive into the parts of life that frighten us. This fluid, engrossing narrative is no ordinary true crime story, but a meditative reflection on loss and identity.
Bluets is a fragmentary record of Nelson’s arbitrary obsession with the color blue. It’s composed of 240 short numbered essays of about a paragraph each; some are just one or two sentences. At one point Nelson refers to these as “propositions,” but really they are more like metaphorical musings. Blue takes on so many meanings: with the connotation of “depressed”, it applies to her loneliness and sense of loss after the breakdown of a relationship (she continues addressing her former partner as “you” here) and a friend’s serious accident:
Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?
Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
Then there’s blues music (Billie Holiday), seedy sex (“blue movies”), Joan Mitchell’s 1973 abstract painting Les Bluets, Novalis’ blue flower (which gives the title to a Penelope Fitzgerald novel), and so on. Nelson likens herself to a male bowerbird lining her nest with blue – sometimes literally, as with the collection of “blue amulets” that she keeps on a windowsill so sunlight can pass through the glass and illuminate the stones. I recalled that Sarah Perry lists Bluets as one inspiration for The Essex Serpent, in which the character Stella is fascinated with the color blue and keeps a similar trove of trinkets.
Bluets is a difficult work to characterize, but it seems closest in style to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which is also built on loosely linked aphorisms. The problem with books like these is that individual lines may stand out as profound but don’t contribute to an overall story line or argument. Moreover, Nelson’s forthrightness about sex, which edges towards crassness and feels out of place in this dreamily academic text, took me some getting used to.
Two more favorite lines:
I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming.
If I were today on my deathbed, I would name my love of the color blue and making love with you as two of the sweetest sensations I knew on this earth.
Many thanks to Cat Mitchell of Penguin Random House for the free review copy.
The Red Parts was the more straightforward and satisfying read of this pair, but Bluets is certainly an original and artful bedside book. I would certainly read more by Nelson; I’m particularly interested in The Argonauts (2015), a memoir about forming her unconventional family – her partner, Harry Dodge, is transgender.
Have you read anything by Maggie Nelson? Do her books appeal?
Reviews Roundup, October–November
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 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 won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
This month you may recognize a few books I already previewed in my posts on books as beautiful objects and library books read in October.
Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing: Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair. My other issue with the book is a couple of subplots that only seem to have minor significance.
In Fidelity by Jack Wilson: In this 1970s-set novel, the central couple’s relationship is tested by illness and extramarital sexual experiences. Moving from New England to Nigeria and back, the story asks what loyalty really requires when a once-strong connection has faded over time. Strongly reminiscent of John Updike in Part One, this is the male view of adultery. Something about the self-justifying tone stuck in my craw. A more balanced book would give the wife’s perspective, too, as Carol Shields did in Happenstance, or like Lauren Groff recently did to great success in Fates and Furies.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra [subscription service]: This collection of tightly linked short stories, an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards, reveals how politics, family, and art intertwine. Ranging from 1937 to 2013, the pieces show how fear and propaganda linger in the post-Stalinist era. In art as much as in politics, it can be difficult to distinguish airbrushed history from bitter reality. Just as he did in his excellent debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable because of his warm and witty writing. All his characters’ voices are well-realized and inviting, and he comes up with terrific one-liners.
Mad Feast by Matthew Gavin Frank: This is the cookbook David Foster Wallace might have written. In an off-the-wall blend of memoir, travel, history and fiction, Frank proceeds region by region, choosing for each American state one beloved dish and interrogating its origins as well as its metaphors and associations. It’s a mixed bag of familiar foods and ones that only locals are likely to know about. Each chapter ends with a recipe for the signature plate, whether from a Lutheran church or a posh restaurant. Frank’s digressive, anecdotal approach takes some getting used to. If you appreciate the style of writers like Geoff Dyer, Maggie Nelson and Will Self, this should be your next food-themed read.
For Books’ Sake
Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman: With her bicentennial approaching in April 2016, it’s the perfect time to revisit Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories. One of the things Harman’s biography does best is trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness). This will help you appreciate afresh a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.”
Cockfosters by Helen Simpson: Simpson’s sixth story collection is full of wry, incisive reflections on aging, loss, regrets, gender roles, and a changing relationship to sex. Most of Simpson’s characters are in their late forties, a liminal time when they’re caught between older parents and still-needy children. Many pieces are dialogue-driven, like scenes in plays. In “Kentish Town,” book club members meet to discuss Dickens’s The Chimes. Simpson weaves in discussion of the plot with commentary on the state of the nation as the ladies set the world to rights and make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a perfect story to read in the run-up to Christmas. The overall stand-out is “Erewhon,” named for Samuel Butler’s 1872 satirical utopian novel. It quickly becomes clear that gender roles are reversed in its fictional world.
Addiction Is Addiction by Raju Hajela, Paige Abbott and Sue Newton: This comprehensive, well-organized guide discusses the features of addictive thinking and feeling, suggests holistic recovery methods, and offers useful definitions, diagrams, and case studies. The authors are affiliated with Health Upwardly Mobile Inc., Calgary, Alberta. Tracing the history of addiction back to the eighteenth century, when it was first known as “alcoholic disease syndrome,” they present an expert view of the disease’s symptoms and outlook. Strongly recommended to those who have participated in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
Indie Spotlight: Books about Religion: Self-publishing allows writers to tell their full stories. An article based on interviews with four indie religion authors and mini-reviews of their books.
Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley: Critchley is a philosophy professor at New York’s New School for Social Research. Although he reassures readers with his first line that “This book is not a suicide note,” he also hints that its writing was inspired by personal trouble: “my life has dissolved over the past year or so, like sugar in hot tea.” Not suicidal himself, then, but sympathetic to those who are driven to self-murder. This concise essay illuminates arguments surrounding suicide, with points of reference ranging from Greek philosophers to Robin Williams. Overall, though, it feels cursory and inconclusive.
The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan: We can all do with a little encouragement to appreciate what we already have. In so many areas of life – finances, career, relationship, even the weather – we’re all too often hoping for more or better than what we are currently experiencing. Here Kaplan undertakes a year-long experiment to see if gratitude can improve every aspect of her life. She draws her information from interviews with researchers and celebrities, quotes from philosophers, and anecdotes from her own and friends’ lives. It’s easy, pleasant reading I’d recommend to fans of Gretchen Rubin.
The Water Book by Alok Jha: An interdisciplinary look at water’s remarkable properties and necessity for life on earth. For the most part, Jha pitches his work at an appropriate level. However, if it’s been a while since you studied chemistry at school, you may struggle. Part IV, on the search for water in space, is too in-depth for popular science and tediously long. In December 2013 Jha was part of a month-long Antarctic expedition. He uses the trip as an effective framing device, but I would have liked more memoiristic passages. All in all, I was hoping for less hard science and more reflection on water’s importance to human culture.
Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker: Mark Cocker is the Guardian’s country diarist for Norfolk. The short pieces in this book are reprints of his columns, some expanded or revised. I would advise keeping this as a bedside or coffee table book from which you read no more than one or two entries a week, so that you always stay in chronological sync. You’ll appreciate the book most if you experience nature along with Cocker, rather than reading from front cover to back in a few sittings. The problem with the latter approach is that there is inevitable repetition of topics across years. All told, after spending a vicarious year in Claxton, you’ll agree: “How miraculous that we are all here, now, in this one small place.”
A Mile Down by David Vann: Vann, better known for fiction, tells the real-life story of his ill-fated journeys at sea. He hired a Turkish crew to build him a boat of his own, and before long shoddy workmanship, language difficulties, bureaucracy, and debts started to make it all seem like a very bad idea. Was he cursed? Would he follow his father into suicide? The day-to-day details of boat-building and sailing can be tedious, and there’s an angry tone that’s unpleasant; Vann seems to think everybody else was incompetent or a crook. However, he does an incredible job of narrating two climactic storms he sailed through.
The Triumph of the Snake Goddess by Kaiser Haq: Beginning with the creation of the world and telling climactic tales of the snake goddess Manasa’s interactions with humans, Haq crafts a uniquely playful set of sacred stories that bear striking similarities to those from other religious traditions. Like Greek myths, the Manasa stories are full of shape-shifting and mistaken identity; rape and incest; jealousy and revenge; and over-the-top exploits of warring gods. She even wears snakes in her hair, like Medusa. Many parallels can also be drawn with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Haq’s rendering of the creation account, in particular, resembles the language of Genesis. This book will appeal to students of comparative religion, but can be read with equal enjoyment by laymen in search of engaging storytelling.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton: Although I’m a huge fan of Sarton’s memoirs, this was my first taste of her fiction. I was underwhelmed: it’s slight and strangely unfeminist. Part of the problem may be that I know so much about Sarton that I couldn’t help but see all the autobiographical detail here. Most of the novel’s action takes place in one day, as Mrs. Stevens awaits the arrival of two interviewers and reflects on past love affairs (some with women) and the meaning of the Muse. For me, Sarton’s journals are a better source of deep thoughts on the writer’s vocation, the value of solitude and the memory of love. This was seen as Sarton’s coming-out book, although it’s not at all sexually explicit.
Running on the March Wind by Lenore Keeshig: Keeshig is a First Nations Canadian; these poems are full of images of Nanabush the Trickster, language from legal Indian acts, and sly subversion of stereotypes – cowboys and Indians, the only good Indian is a dead Indian (in “Making New”), the white man’s burden, and so on. In places I found these more repetitive and polemical than musical, though I did especially like the series of poems on trees.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller: Kei Miller is a Jamaican writer who uses island patois and slang, and Rastafarian images and language, alongside standard English. Here he sets up (especially with the long, multi-part title poem) a playful contrast between the cartographer, emblem of civilization and unbiased science, and the rastaman, who takes an altogether more laidback approach to mapping his homeland. This was the perfect poetry collection to be reading in tandem with A Brief History of Seven Killings (see below).
Very British Problems Abroad by Rob Temple: This is possibly ever so slightly funnier than the original (Very British Problems). A lot of it rings true. Once again the fact that the book originated as tweets means you can’t read too much of it at a time or the one-liners grow tiresome. A couple of my favorites were: “The feeling of dread as you approach the campsite and only then remembering that last year you said you’d never, ever do this again” and “Noticing an avalanche heading your way and hoping your umbrella’s up to the job.”
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: By starting and ending with Purity ‘Pip’ Tyler, Franzen emphasizes his debt to Dickens: shades of both Bleak House and Great Expectations are there in the discovery of true parentage and unexpected riches. This is strong on the level of character and theme. Secrecy, isolation and compassion are recurring topics. East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is close. With a more dynamic opening section, it might have been 5 stars.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: This is an edgy, worthwhile Booker pick, but not for the faint-hearted. For the most part, James alternates patois and standard speech, but nearly every section is packed with local slang and expletives. Whether in monologue or dialogue, the many voices form a captivating chorus. The novel is in five parts, each named after a popular song or album of the time. James’s scope, especially as he follows Josey Wales to the Bronx, is too wide. All the narrative switches, once so dynamic, grow tiresome. At 350 pages this would have been a 5-star read. Nevertheless, I’ll be watching the HBO miniseries. (Full review to appear in December 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of 2015. Stradal has revealed that his grandmother’s Lutheran church cookbook was the inspiration for this culinary-themed novel that takes place over the course of 30 years. His unique structure takes what are essentially short stories from different perspectives and time periods and links them loosely through Eva Thorvald. Eva’s pop-up supper club gains fame thanks to her innovative adaptations of traditional Midwestern foods like venison or Scandinavian lutefisk; it charges $5,000 a head. I loved almost all of Stradal’s ordinary, flawed characters. If you want a peek at how average Americans live (apart from the $5,000 meals), you’ll find it here.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: Allende is a wonderful storyteller. This isn’t up to the level of her South American novels (e.g. The House of the Spirits), and in elaborating both Alma’s and Irina’s stories there’s a bit too much telling rather than showing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book all the same – I devoured it in just a few days. Allende is sensitive to both the process of aging and the various strategies for dealing with traumatic events from the past.
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber: I knew of Nadia Bolz-Weber through Greenbelt Festival. She’s a foul-mouthed, tattooed, fairly orthodox Lutheran pastor. This brief, enjoyable memoir is about how she keeps believing despite her own past issues and the many messed-up and outwardly unlovable people who show up at her church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. In my favorite section, she zeroes in on one Holy Week and shows the whole range of emotions and trauma that religion can address. The Ash Wednesday chapter is the overall highlight.
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson: Bryson’s funniest book for many years. It meant a lot to me since I am also an American expat in England. Two points of criticism, though: although he moves roughly from southeast to northwest in the country, the stops he makes are pretty arbitrary, and his subjects of mockery are often what you’d call easy targets. Do we really need Bryson’s lead to scorn litterbugs and reality television celebrities? Still, I released many an audible snort of laughter while reading.
Shaler’s Fish by Helen Macdonald: I was a huge fan of Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, so was excited to read her poetry collection, originally published in 2001 but to be reissued by Atlantic Monthly Press. Unfortunately, despite the occasional bird and nature imagery (e.g. in “Monhegan”), I found these poems largely inaccessible. Perhaps it was the sprinkling of archaic vocabulary and spellings, or the general lack of punctuation apart from annoying slashes and ampersands.
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir by Bill Clegg: One of the finest memoirs I’ve come across (and I read a heck of a lot of them). Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. Every structural and stylistic decision works: the present tense, short paragraphs, speech set out in italics, occasional flashback chapters distanced through third-person narration. Clegg achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams: An enjoyable novel of eighteenth-century maritime adventure, based on a true story and reminiscent of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. Williams moves between the perspectives of various crew members and outsiders, sometimes employing first person and sometimes third. Key chapters are set in South America, California, Alaska, Macao, and the Solomon Islands. I especially enjoyed a chapter from the point-of-view of a native Alaskan girl – one of the few times the novel focuses on female experience.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Not as innovative or profound as I was expecting given the rapturous reviews from so many quarters. It’s an attempt to tell an old, old story in a new way: wife finds out her husband is cheating. Offill’s style is fragmentary and aphoristic. Some of the facts and sayings are interesting, but most just sit there on the page and don’t add to the story. What I did find worthwhile was tracing the several tense and pronoun changes: from first-person, past tense into present tense, then to third-person and back to first-person for the final page.
As Far As I Know by Roger McGough: A bit silly for my tastes; lots of puns and other plays on words. In style they feel like children’s poems, but with vocabulary and themes more suited to adults. I did like “Indefinite Definitions,” especially BRUPT: “A brupt is a person, curt and impolite / Brusque and impatient / Who thinks he’s always right.” The whole series is like that: words with the indefinite article cut off and an explanation playing on the original word’s connotations. From the “And So to Bed” concluding cycle, I loved Camp bed: “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu / on the bedside table / Gardenia on the pillow / Silk pyjamas neatly folded.”
The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: Marley & Me with a penguin. Well, sort of. A sweet if slight story about the author keeping a Magellanic penguin as a pet while teaching in an Argentina boarding school in the 1970s. On a vacation to Uruguay the twentysomething rescued a penguin from an oil spill and named him Juan Salvado. The uproarious process of cleaning the oil-sodden bird, achieved with a bidet, string bag, and plenty of dish soap, was my favorite passage. However, I’m hesitant about anthropomorphizing, and the language can be stiff – I would have dated this to the 1950s by the speech. Also, there’s precious little evidence of Argentina’s political upheaval.