Plants mirror minds,
Healing, harming powers
Growing green thoughts.
(First stanza of “Plants Mirror Minds” from The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws)
Here are my first three selections for my flora-themed summer reading. I hope to get through more of my own books, as opposed to library books and review copies, as the months go on. Today I have one of each from fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with the settings ranging from 16th-century Alsace to late-20th-century Spain.
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022)
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is one of my favourite new voices in historical fiction (she had written fiction for children and young adults before 2020’s The Mercies). Both novels hit the absolute sweet spot between the literary and women’s fiction camps, choosing a lesser-known time period and incident and filling in the background with sumptuous detail and language. Both also consider situations in which women, queer people and other cultural minorities were oppressed, and imagine characters pushing against those boundaries in affirming but authentic-feeling ways.
The setting is Strasbourg in the sweltering summer of 1518, when a dancing plague (choreomania) hit and hundreds of women engaged in frenzied public dancing, often until their feet bled or even, allegedly, until 15 per day dropped dead. Lisbet observes this all at close hand through her sister-in-law and best friend, who get caught up in the dancing. In the final trimester of pregnancy at last after the loss of many pregnancies and babies, Lisbet tends to the family beekeeping enterprise while her husband is away, but gets distracted when two musicians (brought in to accompany the dancers; an early strategy before the council cracked down), one a Turk, lodge with her and her mother-in-law. The dance tree, where she commemorates her lost children, is her refuge away from the chaos enveloping the city. She’s a naive point-of-view character who quickly has her eyes opened about different ways of living. “It takes courage, to love beyond what others deem the right boundaries.”
This is likely to attract readers of Hamnet; I was also reminded of The Sleeping Beauties, in that the author’s note discusses the possibility that the dancing plagues were an example of a mass hysteria that arose in response to religious restrictions. (Public library)
Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
(Powles also kicked off my 2020 food-themed summer reading.) This came out from Nine Arches Press and a small New Zealand press two years ago but is being published in the USA by Tin House in August. I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness in advance of that release. Those who are new to Powles’s work should enjoy her trademark blend of themes in this poetry collection. She’s mixed race and writes about crossing cultural and language boundaries – especially trying to express herself in Chinese and Hakka. Often, food is her way of embodying split loyalties and love for her heritage. I noted the alliteration in “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” Magnolia is the literal translation of “Mulan,” and that Disney movie and a few other films play a major role here, as do writers Eileen Chang and Robin Hyde. My issue with the book is that it doesn’t feel sufficiently different from her essay collections that I’ve read – the other is Small Bodies of Water – especially given that many of the poems are in prose paragraphs. [Update: I dug out my copy of Small Bodies of Water from a box and found that, indeed, one piece had felt awfully familiar for a reason: that book contains a revised version of “Falling City” (about Eileen Chang’s Shanghai apartment), which first appeared here.] (Read via Edelweiss)
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart (2002)
It’s at least 10 years ago, probably nearer 15, that I read Driving over Lemons, the first in Stewart’s eventual trilogy about buying a remote farm in Andalusia. His books are in the Peter Mayle vein, low-key and humorous: an Englishman finds the good life abroad and tells amusing anecdotes about the locals and his own mishaps.
This sequel stood out for me a little more than the previous book, if only because I mostly read it in Spain. It’s in discrete essays, some of which look back on his earlier life. He was a founding member of Genesis and very briefly the band’s drummer; and to make some cash for the farm he used to rent himself out as a sheep shearer, including during winters in Sweden.
To start with, they were really very isolated, such that getting a telephone line put in revolutionized their lives. By this time, his first book had become something of a literary sensation, so he reflects on its composition and early reception, remembering when the Mail sent a clueless reporter out to find him. Spanish bureaucracy becomes a key element, especially when it looks like their land might be flooded by the building of a dam. Despite that vague sense of dread, this was good fun. (Public library)
Greetings from the English Channel! I’m putting this quick post together on an outdoor deck as we leave Plymouth harbour on the ferry to Spain. I’ve taken a seasickness pill and am wearing acupressure bracelets, and so far I’m feeling pretty well here taking in a sea breeze; fingers crossed that it will continue to be a smooth voyage.
Have a look at all the lovely May releases above. How I wish that I’d had a chance to read some of them this month! Alas, things have been so busy with our move that I have only cracked one open so far (the Shipstead), but I’m looking forward to reading the rest soon after we get back. For now, I’ll give snippets of early reviews I’ve published elsewhere: two memoirs of pregnancy and early motherhood (the one focusing on postnatal depression), a varied short story collection, and an accessible volume of poetry written during Covid lockdowns.
Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera
(Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney)
In a fragmentary work of autobiography and cultural commentary, the Mexican author investigates pregnancy as both physical reality and liminal state. The linea nigra is a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly. It’s a potent metaphor for the author’s matriarchal line: her grandmother was a doula; her mother is a painter. In short passages that dart between topics, Barrera muses on motherhood, monitors her health, and recounts her dreams. Her son, Silvestre, is born halfway through the book. She gives impressionistic memories of the delivery and chronicles her attempts to write while someone else watches the baby. This is both diary and philosophical appeal—for pregnancy and motherhood to become subjects for serious literature. (See my full review for Foreword.)
Birth Notes: A Memoir of Recovery by Jessica Cornwell
It so happens that May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. Cornwell comes from a deeply literary family; the late John le Carré was her grandfather. Her memoir shimmers with visceral memories of delivering her twin sons in 2018 and the postnatal depression and infections that followed. The details, precise and haunting, twine around a historical collage of words from other writers on motherhood and mental illness, ranging from Margery Kempe to Natalia Ginzburg. Childbirth caused other traumatic experiences from her past to resurface. How to cope? For Cornwell, therapy and writing went hand in hand. This is vivid and resolute, and perfect for readers of Catherine Cho, Sinéad Gleeson and Maggie O’Farrell. (See my full review for Shiny New Books.)
With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.
Antipodes: Stories by Holly Goddard Jones
Jones’s fourth work of fiction contains 11 riveting stories of contemporary life in the American South and Midwest. Some have pandemic settings and others are gently magical; all are true to the anxieties of modern careers, marriage and parenthood. In the title story, the narrator, a harried mother and business school student in Kentucky, seeks to balance the opposing forces of her life and wonders what she might have to sacrifice. The ending elicits a gasp, as does the audacious inconclusiveness of “Exhaust,” a tense tale of a quarreling couple driving through a blizzard. Worry over environmental crises fuels “Ark,” about a pyramid scheme for doomsday preppers. Fans of Nickolas Butler and Lorrie Moore will find much to admire. (Read via Edelweiss. See my full review for Shelf Awareness.)
Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl
Having read Ruhl’s memoir Smile, I recognized the contours of her life and the members of her family. In early poems, cooking and laundry recur, everyday duties that mark time as she tries to write and supervises virtual learning for three children. “Let this all be poetry,” she incants. Part Two contains poems written after George Floyd’s murder, the structure mimicking how abrupt the change in focus was for a nation. Part Three moves into haiku and tanka, culminating in a series of poems reflecting on the seasons. Like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, I would recommend this even to people who think they don’t like poetry. A welcome addition to the body of Covid-19 literature. (Read via Edelweiss. See my full review on Goodreads.)
Two favourite poems:
To love a house
not because it’s perfect but because it shelters you
To love a body
not because it’s perfect but because it shelters you
“Quarantine in August, the overripe month”
I’m tired of summer. I crave fall. Luckily fall comes after summer.
And if I get tired of it all, winter will come, then spring.
Have you read anything from my tempting stack?
What other May releases can you recommend?
This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
(I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too! Laura had what she thought must be the ultimate Book Serendipity when she reviewed two novels with the same setup: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole and Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein.)
- The same sans serif font is on Sea State by Tabitha Lasley and Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor – both released by 4th Estate. I never would have noticed had they not ended up next to each other in my stack one day. (Then a font-alike showed up in my TBR pile, this time from different publishers, later on: What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad and When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.)
- Kraftwerk is mentioned in The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu.
- The fact that bacteria sometimes form biofilms is mentioned in Hybrid Humans by Harry Parker and Slime by Susanne Wedlich.
- The idea that when someone dies, it’s like a library burning is repeated in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and In the River of Songs by Susan Jackson.
- Espresso martinis are consumed in If Not for You by Georgina Lucas and Wahala by Nikki May.
- Prosthetic limbs turn up in Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, and Hybrid Humans by Harry Parker.
- A character incurs a bad cut to the palm of the hand in After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – I read the two scenes on the same day.
- Catfish is on the menu in Groundskeeping by Lee Cole and in one story of Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones.
- Reading two novels with “Paradise” in the title (and as the last word) at the same time: Paradise by Toni Morrison and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Reading two books by a Davidson at once: Damnation Spring by Ash and Tracks by Robyn.
- There’s a character named Elwin in The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade and one called Elvin in The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West.
- Tea is served with lemon in The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West.
- There’s a Florence (or Flo) in Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, These Days by Lucy Caldwell and Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell. (Not to mention a Flora in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.)
- There’s a hoarder character in Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
- Reading at the same time two memoirs by New Yorker writers releasing within two weeks of each other (in the UK at least) and blurbed by Jia Tolentino: Home/Land by Rebecca Mead and Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz.
- Three children play in a graveyard in Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier and Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith.
- Shalimar perfume is worn in These Days by Lucy Caldwell and The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade.
- A relative is described as “very cold” and it’s wondered what made her that way in Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso and one of the testimonies in Regrets of the Dying by Georgina Scull.
- Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild is mentioned in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, which I was reading at around the same time. (As is The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I’d recently finished.)
- From one poetry collection with references to Islam (Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire) to another (Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe).
- Two children’s books featuring a building that is revealed to be a theatre: Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson and The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke.
- Reading two “braid” books at once: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and French Braid by Anne Tyler.
- Protests and teargas in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
- Jellyfish poems in Honorifics by Cynthia Miller and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl.
- George Floyd’s murder is a major element in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each year by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m sneaking in on the final day of March (there’s a surprise snow squall out the window as I write this) with four short reviews and feeling rather smug that my post covers lots of bases: short stories, a novel, a book of autobiographical pieces, and a poetry collection.
Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)
The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium.
Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. In “Nostalgie,” a washed-up rocker is asked to perform his hit song at a battalion’s party. A woman and her lodger are welded together by a violent secret in “Bildungsroman,” which reminded me of a tale from Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories. “Gloria and Max” struck me most of all: a drive to a film festival becomes a traumatic flashback when they’re first on the scene of an accident.
Erskine’s writing is blunt and edgy, the kind that might be stereotyped as male but nowadays is also, inevitably for Irish authors, associated with Sally Rooney: matter-of-fact; no speech marks, flat dialogue and slang. A couple of other favourites: “Mathematics,” in which a cleaner finds an abandoned child in a hotel room and tries to do right by her; and “Memento Mori,” about two deaths, one drawn out and one sudden; both equally unexpected; and only enough compassion to cope with one. (Public library)
After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (2000)
In form this is similar to O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us, one of my Reading Ireland selections from last year: short sections of a few pages flit between times and perspectives. (There’s also an impulsive trip from London to Scotland in both.) But whereas in her third novel I found the jump cuts confusing and unnecessary, here they just work, and elegantly, to build a portrait of Alice Raikes, in a coma after what may have been a suicide attempt. That day she’d taken a train from London to Edinburgh at the last minute, met her sisters at the station, seen something that threw her, and gotten right on a return train. Back in London and on the way to the shop for cat food, she stepped off the kerb and into the path of a car.
Scenes from Alice’s childhood in Scotland are interspersed with her love affairs; her parents’ disappointing marriage serves as a counterpoint to her great passion for John. The setup of three female generations in North Berwick and the question of sexual autonomy reminded me strongly of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock.
This is a bold debut novel, refusing to hold readers’ hands through shifts from now to near past to further ago, from third to second to first person (even Alice from her coma: “my body still clings to life, and I find myself suspended like Persephone between two states … I am somewhere. Drifting. Hiding.”). Loss, secrets and family inheritance may be familiar themes, but when this was published at the millennium it must have seemed thrillingly fresh; it still does now.
I only have one unread O’Farrell novel awaiting me now, My Lover’s Lover. I’ll be saving that up, maybe for this time next year. Having not much enjoyed Hamnet, I’m disappointed that her forthcoming novel will also be historical and will probably skip it; I miss her stylish contemporary commentary. (Secondhand from a charity shop)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, ed. John Quinn (1986)
These autobiographical essays were compiled by Quinn based on interviews he conducted with nine women writers for an RTE Radio series in 1985. I’d read bits of Dervla Murphy’s and Edna O’Brien’s work before, but the other authors were new to me (Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Polly Devlin, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Mary Lavin and Joan Lingard). The focus is on childhood: what their family was like, what drove these women to write, and what fragments of real life have made it into their books.
I read the first couple of pieces but then started to find the format repetitive and didn’t want to read out-of-context illustrative passages from novels I’d never heard of, so only skimmed through the rest. You can work out what Quinn’s questions were based on how the essays spin out: What is your earliest memory? What was your relationship with your parents? What was your schooling? Were you lonely? What part did books and writing play in your childhood? Distant fathers, a strict Catholic upbringing, solitude/boredom and escaping into novels are common elements. Some had happier childhoods than others, but all are grateful for the life of the mind: A solid base of familial love and the freedom to explore were vital.
The best passage comes from Seamus Heaney’s foreword: “The woman writer, like everybody else, is in pursuit of coherence, attempting to bring into significant alignment the creature she was and the being she is striving to become.” (Secondhand from Bookbarn International)
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín (2022)
I didn’t realize when I started it that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse that I assumed he’s been publishing poetry for decades. He’s one of those polymaths who’s written in many genres – contemporary fiction, literary criticism, travel memoir, historical fiction – and impresses in all. I’ve been finding his recent Folio Prize winner, The Magician, a little too dry and biography-by-rote for someone with no particular interest in Thomas Mann (I’ve only ever read Death in Venice), so I will likely just skim it before returning it to the library, but I can highly recommend his poems as an alternative.
There’s such a range of tone, structures and topics here. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background, as in “Lines Written After the Second Moderna Vaccine at Dodgers’ Stadium Los Angeles, 27 February 2021.” Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates the very witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” You can come along on some armchair travels: “In Washington DC,” “In San Clemente,” “Canal Water” (Venice), “Jericho,” and so on. The poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations; there are both short phrases and prose paragraphs. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating (any other enjambment geeks out there?). I particularly loved “Kennedy in Wexford,” “In the White House,” “Eccles Street” and “Eve.”
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Have you read any Irish literature this month?
Rounding off my three-part look at some of the month’s new releases with two memoirs plus a memoir-writer’s self-help guide today. (Can you tell I’m a memoir junkie?) Topics range from medical mysteries and covert racism to a reclaiming of life after a near-death experience, but these three nonfiction works by women are linked by the determination to overcome self-doubt.
This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris
One morning, Taylor Harris and her husband (an African American family based in Charlottesville, Virginia) found their 22-month-old son Christopher, nicknamed “Tophs,” awake but unresponsive in his crib. In the years that followed, she and his doctors looked for answers as to why his body couldn’t regulate his blood sugar levels, sometimes leading to seizures, and to why his speech and mental processing remained delayed. All their tests and theories have never amounted to a conclusive diagnosis. This was a book that repeatedly surprised me. I’d assumed it would be exclusively about the medical mystery of Tophs’s physical and intellectual disability. But Harris elegantly weaves in a lot of other themes, too: mental illness, her own physical concerns (a BRCA2 mutation), racism, faith, and advocating for her children’s health and education. (Full review at BookBrowse.)
Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page by Cathy Rentzenbrink
Cathy Rentzenbrink is a lovely human being, and I’ve always appreciated her enthusiastic support of books. I’ve read all of her work even though I’ve been disappointed with her last few releases. There are so many writing guides out there – including several on memoir-writing specifically – that the first question to ask about one is, does it offer anything new? For me, this one doesn’t. In fact, it’s more of a therapy session than a practical writing guide.
The undemanding prose slides right down, but 60 pages in (at the end of Part One, “Preparation”) I realized all we’d had thus far was enumerating and countering the hang-ups of unconfident, procrastinating would-be writers. The rest of the book does then get into the nitty-gritty of producing a first draft (“Excavation”) of a life story and editing it into a more polished form. Rentzenbrink peppers in little tricks to keep oneself at the desk, like setting a timer or micro-goals, writing a section in the form of a letter, and dredging up sensory details. Most of the mini chapters are just a couple of pages. Several end with a series of prompts. I’m notorious for skipping the application questions in self-help books, but I’d be interested to hear if other readers have actually gone through these exercises and found them helpful.
I’m so familiar with the author’s own story from her three autobiographical works that I was less than patient about encountering certain incidents again here – though I was intrigued to learn that she gave up alcohol in the recent past after realizing that she was a problem drinker. I’ve also read most of the material in her Further Reading list; all told, I didn’t feel this book offered me much, as a lay reader or a maybe-some-day memoirist. But it seems to have been enormously popular among critics and readers (its average Goodreads rating is 4.38), so clearly a lot of people have been finding Rentzenbrink’s down-to-earth approach reassuring.
With thanks to Emma Finnigan PR and Bluebird for the proof copy for review.
The Cure for Sleep: Memoir of a Late-Waking Life by Tanya Shadrick
From my Most Anticipated list. Shadrick hangs around the fringes of nature writing cliques on Twitter, so I expected this to have more of a nature/travel element. Instead, it bears a fairy tale ambience, of a little girl lost in the woods and craving freedom; of a sleepwalking woman deciding to live more deliberately. It opens with a near-death experience: Shadrick, new mother to a son conceived after infertility treatment, suffered a severe haemorrhage after the placenta tore an artery and was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.
From this point she returns to the beginning of her life and proceeds chronologically, pausing at joyful or traumatic moments. Her childhood feels like the key to understanding everything else: her father left when she was a baby; her mother, all too aware of being of lower class, was driven to improve herself. Shadrick wanted her mother all to herself, at the same time as she felt trapped by her. She injured herself jumping off an outhouse roof in protest at her mother’s new boyfriend, who became her stepfather. At university she reacted against her upbringing in predictable ways, failing her first year and having an abortion. Even once happily married, she kept unconsciously searching for surrogate father (older male) figures.
After the postnatal operation, she felt a need to escape – by suicide if necessary – yet forced herself to stay, make connections in her town and be present for her children. But she remained a free spirit, swimming and writing a mile-long scroll as public performance art. Her work with hospice patients, recording their memories, qualified her to edit Lynne Roper’s wild swimming diaries into a Wainwright Prize-longlisted book.
Awakening versus sleep is the figurative framework for the memoir, with a feminist insistence on freedom and self-fulfilment at the same time as being a mother. This is an unusual book – at times overwritten and too deliberately moulded into tropes as a rebuttal to randomness, even though, looking back, I can’t decipher a coherent plot to the events – that reminded me most of Free Woman by Lara Feigel and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell.
With thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.
Does one of these books appeal to you?
Just over a year ago, I reviewed Dr Gavin Francis’s Intensive Care, his record of the first 10 months of Covid-19, especially as it affected his work as a GP in Scotland. It ended up on my Best of 2021 list and is still the book I point people to for reflections on the pandemic. Recovery serves as a natural sequel: for those contracting Covid, as well as those who have had it before and may be suffering the effects of the long form, the focus will now be on healing as much as it is on preventing the spread of the virus. This lovely little book spins personal and general histories of convalescence, and expresses the hope that our collective brush with death will make us all more determined to treasure our life and wellbeing.
Francis remembers times of recovery in his own life: after meningitis at age 10, falling off his bike at 12, and a sinus surgery during his first year of medical practice. Refuting received wisdom about scammers taking advantage of sickness benefits (government data show only 1.7% of claims are fraudulent), he affirms the importance of a social safety net that allows necessary recovery time. Convalescence is subjective, he notes; it takes as long as it takes, and patients should listen to their bodies and not push too hard out of frustration or boredom.
Traditionally, travel, rest and time in nature have been non-medical recommendations for convalescents, and Francis believes they still hold great value – not least for the positive mental state they promote. He might also employ “social prescribing,” directing his patients to join a club, see a counsellor, get good nutrition or adopt a pet. A recovery period can be as difficult for carers as for patients, he acknowledges, and most of us will spend time as both.
I read this in December while staying with my convalescent mother, and could see how much of its practical advice applied to her – “Plan rests regularly throughout the day,” “Use aids to avoid bending and reaching,” “Set achievable goals.” If only everyone being discharged from hospital could be issued with a copy – pocket-sized and only just over 100 pages, it would be a perfect companion through any recovery period. I’d especially recommend this to readers of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am and Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness.
At one level, convalescence has something in common with dying in that it forces us to engage with our limitations, the fragile nature of our existence. Why not, then, live fully while we can?
If we can take any gifts or wisdom from the experience of illness, surely it’s this: to deepen our appreciation of health … in the knowledge that it can so easily be taken away.
Published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection today, 13 January. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
*The Profile publicity team has offered a giveaway copy to be sent to one of my readers. If you’d like to be entered in the draw (UK only, sorry), please mention so in your comment below. I’ll choose a winner at random next Friday morning (the 21st) and contact them by e-mail.*
My fourth title-based dual review post this year (after Ex Libris, The Still Point and How Not to Be Afraid), with Betty vs. Bettyville to come in December if I can manage them both. Today I have an early Helen Dunmore novel about the secrets binding a pair of sisters and an Elaine Feinstein poetry collection written after the loss of her husband. Their shared title seemed appropriate as Halloween approaches. Both:
Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)
Nina, a photographer, has travelled to stay with her sister in Sussex after the birth of Isabel’s first child, Antony. A house full of visitors, surrounded by an unruly garden, is perfect for concealment. A current secret trades off with one from deep in the sisters’ childhood: their baby brother Colin’s death, which they remember differently. Antony and Colin function like doubles, with the sisters in subtle competition for ownership of the past and present. This was a delicious read: as close as literary fiction gets to a psychological thriller, dripping with sultry summer atmosphere and the symbols of aphrodisiac foods and blowsy flowers. From the novel’s title and opening pages, you have an inkling of what’s to come, but it still hits hard when it does. Impossible to say more about the plot without spoiling it, so just know that it’s a suspenseful story of sisters with Tessa Hadley, Maggie O’Farrell and Polly Samson vibes. I hadn’t much enjoyed my first taste of Dunmore’s fiction (Exposure), but I’m very glad that Susan’s enthusiasm spurred me to pick this up. (Secondhand purchase, Honesty bookshop outside the Castle, Hay-on-Wye)
Talking to the Dead by Elaine Feinstein (2007)
Much like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, my top poetry release of last year, this is a tender and playful response to a beloved spouse’s death. The short verses are in stanzas and incorporate the occasional end rhyme and spot of alliteration as Feinstein marshals images and memories to recreate her husband’s funeral and moments from their marriage and travels beforehand and her widowhood afterwards – including moving out of their shared home. The poems flow so easily and beautifully from one to another; I’d happily read much more from Feinstein. This was her 13th poetry collection; before her death in 2019, she also wrote many novels, stories, biographies and translations. I’ll leave you with a poem suitable for the run-up to the Day of the Dead. (Secondhand purchase, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)
Does one or both of these appeal to you?
It’s the opening month of my new Love Your Library meme! I hope some of you will join me in writing about the libraries you use and what you’ve borrowed from them recently. I plan to treat these monthly posts as a sort of miscellany.
Although I likely won’t do thorough Library Checkout rundowns anymore, I’ll show photos of what I’ve borrowed, give links to reviews of a few recent reads, and then feature something random, such as a reading theme or library policy or display.
Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’m co-opting a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.
Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):
- Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
- An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
- Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
- A description of a particular feature of your local library
- A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
- An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
- A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.
If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!
The Echo Chamber by John Boyne
John Boyne is such a literary chameleon. He’s been John Irving (The Heart’s Invisible Furies), Patricia Highsmith (A Ladder to the Sky) and David Mitchell (A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom). Now, with this Internet-age state-of-the-nation satire featuring variously abhorrent characters, he’s channelling the likes of Jamie Attenberg, Jonathan Coe, Patricia Lockwood, Lionel Shriver and Emma Straub. Every member of the Cleverley family is a morally compromised fake. Boyne gives his characters amusing tics, and there are also some tremendously funny set pieces, such as Nelson’s speed dating escapade and George’s public outbursts. He links several storylines through the Ukrainian dancer Pylyp, who’s slept with almost every character in the book and has Beverley petsit for his tortoise.
What is Boyne spoofing here? Mostly smartphone addiction, but also cancel culture. I imagined George as Hugh Bonneville throughout; indeed, the novel would lend itself very well to screen adaptation. And I loved how Beverley’s new ghostwriter, never given any name beyond “the ghost,” feels like the most real and perceptive character of all. Surely one of the funniest books I will read this year. (Full review).
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
I was one of those rare readers who didn’t think so much of Normal People, so to me this felt like a return to form. Conversations with Friends was a surprise hit with me back in 2017 when I read it as part of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel the year she won. The themes here are much the same: friendship, nostalgia, sex, communication and the search for meaning. BWWAY is that little bit more existential: through the long-form e-mail correspondence between two friends from college, novelist Alice and literary magazine editor Eileen, we imbibe a lot of philosophizing about history, aesthetics and culture, and musings on the purpose of an individual life against the backdrop of the potential extinction of the species.
Through their relationships with Felix (a rough-around-the-edges warehouse worker) and Simon (slightly older and involved in politics), Rooney explores the question of whether lasting bonds can be formed despite perceived differences of class and intelligence. The background of Alice’s nervous breakdown and Simon’s Catholicism also bring in sensitive treatments of mental illness and faith. (Full review).
This month’s feature
I spotted a few of these during my volunteer shelving and then sought out a couple more. All five are picture books composed by authors not known for their writing for children.
Islandborn by Junot Díaz (illus. Leo Espinosa): “Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else.” When the teacher asks them all to draw a picture of the country they came from, plucky Lola doesn’t know how to depict the Island. Since she left as a baby, she has to interview relatives and neighbours for their lasting impressions. For one man it’s mangoes so sweet they make you cry; for her grandmother it’s dolphins near the beach. She gathers the memories into a vibrant booklet. The 2D cut-paper style reminded me of Ezra Jack Keats.
The Islanders by Helen Dunmore (illus. Rebecca Cobb): Robbie and his family are back in Cornwall to visit Tamsin and her family. These two are the best of friends and explore along the beach together, creating their own little island by digging a channel and making a dam. As the week’s holiday comes toward an end, a magical night-time journey makes them wonder if their wish to make their island life their real life forever could come true. The brightly coloured paint and crayon illustrations are a little bit Charlie and Lola and very cute.
Rose Blanche by Ian McEwan (illus. Roberto Innocenti): Patriotism is assumed for the title character and her mother as they cheer German soldiers heading off to war. There’s dramatic irony in Rose being our innocent witness to deprivations and abductions. One day she follows a truck out of town and past barriers and fences and stumbles onto a concentration camp. Seeing hungry children’s suffering, she starts bringing them food. Unfortunately, this gets pretty mawkish and, while I liked some of the tableau scenes – reminiscent of Brueghel or Stanley Spencer – the faces are awful. (Based on a story by Christophe Gallaz.)
Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell (illus. Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini): The snow angel Sylvie made last winter comes back to her to serve as her guardian angel, saving her from illness and accident risks. If you’re familiar with O’Farrell’s memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, this presents a similar catalogue of near-misses. For a picture book, it has a lot of words – several paragraphs’ worth on most of its 70 pages – so I imagine it’s more suitable for ages seven and up. I loved the fairy tale atmosphere, touches of humour, and drawing style.
Weirdo by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird (illus. Magenta Fox): Kit’s birthday present is Maud, a guinea pig in a judo uniform. None of the other household pets – Derrick the cockatoo, Dora the cat, and Bob the pug – know what to make of her. Like in The Secret Life of Pets, the pets take over, interacting while everyone’s out at school and work. At first Maud tries making herself like the others, but after she spends an afternoon with an eccentric neighbour she realizes all she needs to be is herself. It’s not the first time married couple Smith and Laird have published an in-joke (their 2018 releases – an essay collection and a book of poems, respectively – are both entitled Feel Free): Kit is their daughter’s name and Maud is their pug’s. But this was cute enough to let them off.
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each March by Cathy of 746 Books. This year I read works by four Irish women: a meditation on birds and craft, hard-hitting poems about body issues, autofiction that incorporates biography and translation to consider the shape of women’s lives across the centuries, and a novel that jets between Hong Kong and Scotland. Two of these were sent to me as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. I have some Irish music lined up to listen to (Hallow by Duke Special, At Swim by Lisa Hannigan, Chop Chop by Bell X1, Magnetic North by Iain Archer) and I’m ready to tell you all about these four books.
handiwork by Sara Baume (2020)
Back in February 2016, I reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, for Third Way magazine. A dark story of a middle-aged loner and his adopted dog setting off on a peculiar road trip, it was full of careful nature imagery. “I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things,” the narrator, Ray, states. The same might be said of Baume, who is a visual artist as well as an author and put together this gently illuminating book over the course of 2018, at the same time as she was working on several sculptural installations. In short sections of a paragraph or two, or sometimes no more than a line, she describes her daily routines in her home workspaces: in the morning she listens to barely audible talk radio as she writes, while the afternoons are for carving and painting.
Working with her hands is a family tradition passed down from her grandfather and father, who died in the recent past – of lung cancer from particles he was exposed to at the sandstone quarry where he worked. Baume has a sense of responsibility for how she spends her time and materials. Concern about waste is at odds with a drive for perfection: she discarded her first 100 plaster birds before she was happy with the series used to illustrate this volume. Snippets of craft theory, family memories, and trivia about bird migration and behaviour are interspersed with musings on what she makes. The joy of holding a physical object in the hand somehow outweighs that of having committed virtual words to a hard drive.
Despite the occasional lovely line, this scattered set of reflections doesn’t hang together. The bird facts, in particular, feel shoehorned in for symbolism, as in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. It’s a shame, as from the blurb I thought this book couldn’t be better suited to my tastes. Ultimately, as with Spill, Baume’s prose doesn’t spark much for me.
“Most of the time spent making is spent, in fact, in the approach.”
“I must stop once the boredom becomes intolerable, knowing that if I plunge on past this point I will risk arriving at resentment”
“What we all shared – me, my dad, his dad – was a suspicion of modern life, a loathing of fashion, a disappointment with the new technologies and a preference for the ad hoc contraptions of the past”
“The glorious, crushing, ridiculous repetition of life.”
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. handiwork is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (2021)
This audacious debut collection of fleshly poems is the best I’ve come across so far this year. The body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines.
Where did I start?
Yes, with the heart, enlarged,
its chambers stretched through caring.
Oh is it in defiance or defeat, I don’t know,
I eat it anyway, raw, still warm.
The size of my fist, I love it.
(from the opening poem, “Learning to Eat My Mother, where My Mother Is the Teacher”)
Meat avoidance goes beyond principled vegetarianism to become a phobia. Like the female saints, the speaker will deny herself until she achieves spiritual enlightenment.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself.
(from “Alternative Medicine”)
The title phrase comes from “Open Your Mouth,” in which the god Krishna, as a toddler, nourishes his mother with clay. A child feeding its mother reverses the expected situation, which is described in one of the book’s most striking poems, “Researching the Irish Famine.” The site of an old workhouse divulges buried horrors: “Mothers exhausted their own bodies / to produce milk. […] The starving / human / literally / consumes / itself.”
Corpses and meals; body odour and graves. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to this collection, but it also has its lighter moments: the sexy “Paris Syndrome,” the low-stakes anxiety over pleasing one’s mother in “Guest Room,” and the playful closer, “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” (“O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting / bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing”). Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry. Verse readalikes would include The Air Year by Caroline Bird, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. This comes out on the 25th.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2020)
“This is a female text.” In an elegant loop, Ní Ghríofa begins and ends with this line, and uses it as a refrain throughout. What is the text? It is this book, yes, as well as the 18th-century Irish-language poem that becomes an obsession for the author/narrator, “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill; however, it is also the female body, its milk and blood just as significant for storytelling as any ink.
Because the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s, I took her experiences at face value. As the narrative opens in 2012, Ní Ghríofa and her husband have three young sons and life for her is a list of repetitive household tasks that must be completed each day. She donates pumped breast milk for premature babies as a karmic contribution to the universe: something she can control when so much around her she feels she can’t, like frequent evictions and another pregnancy. Reading Eibhlín Dubh’s lament for her murdered husband, contemplating a new translation of it, and recreating her life from paltry archival fragments: these tasks broaden her life and give an intellectual component to complement the bodily one.
My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink. […] I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh.
Ní Ghríofa remembers other times in her life in an impressionistic stream: starting a premed course at university, bad behaviour that culminated in suicidal ideation, a near-collision on a highway, her daughter’s birth by emergency C-section, finally buying a house and making it a home by adopting a stray kitten and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can tell from the precision of her words that Ní Ghríofa started off as a poet, and I loved how she writes about her own life. I had little interest in Eibhlín Dubh’s story, but maybe it’s enough for her to be an example of women “cast once more in the periphery of men’s lives.” It’s a book about women’s labour – physical and emotional – and the traces of it that remain. I recommend it alongside I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Mother Ship by Francesca Segal.
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. A Ghost in the Throat is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell (2004)
This is the earliest work of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read – it was her third novel, following After You’d Gone and My Lover’s Lover (I finally found those two at a charity shop last year and I’m saving them for a rainy day). It took me a long time to get into this one. It’s delivered in bitty sections that race between characters and situations, not generally in chronological order. It’s not until nearly the halfway point that you get a sense of how it all fits together.
Although there are many secondary characters, the two main strands belong to Jake, a young white filmmaker raised in Hong Kong by a bohemian mother, and Stella, a Scottish-Italian radio broadcaster. When a Chinese New Year celebration turns into a stampede, Jake and his girlfriend narrowly escape disaster and rush into a commitment he’s not ready for. In the meantime, Stella gets spooked by a traumatic flash from her childhood and flees London for a remote Scottish hotel. She’s very close to her older sister, Nina, who was deathly ill as a child (O’Farrell inserts a scene I was familiar with from I Am, I Am, I Am, when she heard a nurse outside her room chiding a noisy visitor, “There’s a little girl dying in there”), but now it’s Nina who will have to convince Stella to take the chance at happiness that life is offering.
In the end, this felt like a rehearsal for This Must Be the Place; it has the myriad settings (e.g., here, Italy, Wales and New Zealand are also mentioned) but not the emotional heft. With a setup like this, you sort of know where things are going, don’t you? Despite Stella’s awful secret, she is as flat a character as Jake. Simple boy-meets-girl story lines don’t hold a lot of appeal for me now, if they ever did. Still, the second half was a great ride.
Also, I’ve tried twice over the past year, but couldn’t get further than page 80 in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (2020), a black comedy about two brothers whose farmer father goes bankrupt and gets a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s debut, Orchid & the Wasp, and this second novel is now on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents.
Josh Cohen’s How to Live. What to Do, a therapist’s guide to literature, explains why this might happen:
More than one writer – the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – has advanced the exhilarating idea that each book is an infinitesimally small piece of one single, endless Book. I’ve always felt that this idea, unlikely as it might sound, makes perfect sense if you read enough novels [also nonfiction, for me]. The incidents, descriptions, phrases and images in the book you’re reading will always recall the incidents in another, and those in turn will call up the incidents in another, so that even as you’re reading one book, you’re reading countless others.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Mother‒baby swimming sessions in Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley and The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp.
- [I think it would be a spoiler to even name them, but two novels I read simultaneously in January featured 1) a marriage / close relationship between a man and a woman – even though the man is gay; and 2) a character who beat his wife and then died in a convenient ‘accident’. One was published in 1997 and the other in 2020.]
- Stomas appeared in Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger late in my 2020 reading, and then in early 2021 in Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen and Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.
- An account of the author’s experience of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan and I Miss You when I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.
- Salmon fishing takes place in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- The medical motto “see one, do one, teach one” appears in Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and Complications by Atul Gawande.
- Filipino medical staff feature in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke.
- Twin Peaks is mentioned in The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and the anthology Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health; a different essay in the latter talks about Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggle, which is a strand in the former.
- St. Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Heart by Gail Godwin and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
- The same Rachel Long poem appears in her debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love – but under different titles (“Portent” vs. “Delayed Gratification”).
- There’s a matriarch named Dot in Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.
- There’s an Alaska setting in The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- Becoming a mother is described as a baptism in Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- While reading America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, I saw Castillo mentioned in the Acknowledgements of My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long.
- Polar explorers’ demise is discussed in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Still Point by Amy Sackville.
- “Butterfingers” / “butter-fingered” is used in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- There’s a mention of someone eating paper torn from books (the horror!) in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- I was reading three pre-releases at once, each of 288 pages: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson.
- The Jewish golem myth is the overarching metaphor of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- There’s a ceremony to pay respects to those who donated their bodies for medical school dissection in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- An old woman with dementia features in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- A mother dies of cancer on Christmas Day in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- The main character does stand-up comedy in Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist.
- Winning a goldfish at a carnival in The Air Year by Caroline Bird, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, and Anna Vaught’s essay in the Trauma anthology.
- ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is mentioned in Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
- There’s a father who is non-medical hospital staff in The Push by Ashley Audrain (a cleaner) and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (a kitchen worker).
- There’s a character named Hart in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes and The Birth House by Ami McKay.
- Cannibalism is a point of reference, a major metaphor, or a (surreal) reality in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick, and Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.
- Infertility and caring for animals were two big themes shared by Brood by Jackie Polzin and Catalogue Baby by Myriam Steinberg. This became clearer when I interviewed both authors in February. Also, both women have shocks of pink hair in their publicity photos!
- A young woman works at a hotel in The Distance between Us by Maggie O’Farrell and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read late last year).