Tag Archives: magic realism

Review and Q&A: Those Fantastic Lives by Bradley Sides

Bradley Sides and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine in 2014–15 and I’ve been following his career ever since. I was delighted to get early access to his debut short story collection, Those Fantastic Lives (out today from Blacklight Press), which was an ideal transition for me from September’s short story focus to October’s R.I.P. challenge for how it blends the genres of dystopia, horror, and magic realism with literary writing.

Many of the protagonists in these 17 stories are orphans or children who have lost one parent. Grief uproots them, leaves them questing; combine their loneliness with dashes of the supernatural and you have perfect situations for strange and wonderful things to happen. So in the title story we have Sam, who at eight longs to follow in his psychic grandmother’s footsteps. In the achingly beautiful “Dolls for the End of the World,” young Patrick’s empathy somehow makes the apocalypse more bearable. In “The Hunt,” 10-year-old Zoey is obsessed with finding a sasquatch, while “In the Hollow” Walt trusts wolf-like creatures to lead him to his dead mother.

“Commencement,” in a first-person plural voice, is the creepiest of the lot, documenting preparations for graduation at a special academy. To be named the class valedictorian is an enduring yet dubious honor… But there are flashes of humor in the book as well. For instance, the lighthearted werewolf story “A Complicated Correspondence” is told via a series of increasingly convoluted e-mails. These two and “Back in Crowville,” in which scarecrows are used to scare off ghosts, too, struck me as perfect Halloween reading. I’d particularly recommend the book to readers of Kelly Link and Lydia Millet.

Brad and I had a chat over e-mail about his inspiration, themes and publication process.

 

Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?

Almost all of the stories I write come to me initially as a vision. I don’t mean in a dream or anything that dramatic, but I might be walking and see a stream, and suddenly that stream is placed in another world, and the stakes are much, much higher. Once I see my characters or my setting or my situation, I have to write a story that leads up to the moment I’m seeing. Writing and creating is, for me, a very internalized process.

Titles are so hard for me. I wish this weren’t the case, but I never write with titles in mind. Sometimes I’ll have the story ready, and I might have to wait weeks before I come to the right title. In regards to writing, I think I’m the worst at titling.

 

I think my favorite line in the book might be “Just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it’s gone.” That’s from “The Comet Seekers,” about a pair of brothers in search of their father. A number of the stories feature children who have lost a guardian. How does bereavement alter the course of these coming-of-age narratives?

I’m so interested in loss in general. In life, we lose things. As kids. As adults. It doesn’t stop. I grew up on a farm, and animals died constantly. Chickens were slaughtered by foxes. Ducks were killed on their nests by turtles. Cows were sold and slaughtered. Pets died. Loss was everywhere. I’ve always thought about it. I guess, in many ways, loss haunts me.

I feel like bereavement and orphanhood create tension in many of my stories, but they also serve to add stakes to my characters’ lives. It’s tough to keep losing. Sometimes, you’ll do anything to keep from experiencing that—or to try to keep from experiencing that, at least. There’s power there.

 

I imagine that, like sequencing an album, choosing the order of the stories was a pleasurable challenge. How did you decide on the structure of the book – the opening story, the closing story; the themes running into or contrasting with each other; transitions; and so on?

It was a fun process to start putting all of my work together. I mean, it was also a little stressful once I got near the end and was getting ready to send Those Fantastic Lives out, but it was still fun. I have written a lot of stories, but for my collection, I wanted to only include the stories I love the most. I cut and cut based on just pure writerly love first—and gut instinct, I suppose. Once I had it narrowed, I started looking closely at themes. I removed a handful that felt like they didn’t belong. I really like slim collections (and slim books in general), so I wanted something relatively short—something less than 200 pages. The strangest thing I did was that I read the collection aloud. SEVERAL times, too. If a story didn’t fit the sound, I cut it. I really wanted to put out a cohesive collection, and I think (hope?) I’ve done that with these seventeen stories.

 

I loved how elements recurred in later tales – for instance, in both “Losing Light” and “The Mooneaters” characters consume sources of light and glow from the inside, and “What They Left Behind” connects back to “The Mooneaters” in that a character starts to sprout feathers. How do you account for these pervasive images?

This is probably a terrible response to such a great question, but it’s the truth: I look at the sky a lot. As in, probably way beyond what is normal. When I walk my dog, I look up at the morning sky and think about the clouds and the rising sun. When my wife and I are out on the porch in the evenings, I look up and think about the approaching stars. The coming moon. Whether early or late, the birds are always around, flying to wherever it is they go. I am so amazed by and curious of the sky. It’s such a beautiful, mysterious place that hovers above us, and it’s kind of the perfect space for me to root a lot of the fantastical elements of my stories.

 

In my favorite story, “The Galactic Healers,” Lian makes contact with aliens who offer a therapeutic balm. His suspicious father takes the medicine by force – a plan that quickly backfires. To what extent might this one be read as a parable of colonial exploitation and toxic masculinity?

I’m so glad you liked “The Galactic Healers,” Rebecca. It is one of my favorites, too. I’m naturally drawn, just as a human and not even necessarily speaking as a writer, to the topics you mention. I think about otherness. What it means to be outside or different. In that same way, I think about tender versus toxic behavior. I think the reading you have of the story is definitely a good one. And it probably captures where I was, in my head, at that time.

 

I sensed shades of Karen Russell and George Saunders. Who are some of your favorite writers, and who would you cite as inspirations for the collection?

I love Karen Russell and George Saunders both. I’m honored that my work reminds you of their writing. I think they are both influences on my fiction. I’m also inspired by Ray Bradbury a lot. I’m a very visual creator, so television writers also serve as huge inspirations for me. Mike Flanagan’s work (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor) haunts me, and I love it.

Bradley Sides. Photo by Abraham Rowe.

 

Versions of 12 of the stories previously appeared in various publications. What has your experience been of getting your work into literary magazines?

Getting published in literary magazines is an exhausting process. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary one and one that gives me a lot of joy in the long run, but it’s also tough. I write weird stuff. Not every magazine wants a story about glowing monsters or a tiny kid whose home planet was invaded by giants and now lives on an ice cube. Finding the right magazine takes time, and even when I think I’ve found the right place, I’m sometimes wrong. I submit, hope for the best, and keep submitting. Usually, most of my stories wind up finding homes in the first five or so magazines I submit them to, but that’s not always the case. With “What They Left Behind,” for example, I bet I sent that story to twenty or thirty magazines before I found the perfect match at Crow & Cross Keys. Although it took some time to land at its home, it found its PERFECT home.

 

These stories were seven years in the making. What was your road to publication like, and how did you land at Blacklight Press?

Like many yet-to-publish-a-book writers, I was constantly searching for publication information as I was reaching the end of my writing cycle for Those Fantastic Lives, and I kept encountering these articles about how long and tough the publication process can be. I was prepared for it to take years before I found a press willing to take on my collection.

Once it was ready, I sent Those Fantastic Lives out to a handful of publishers—all of which I’d found out about with basic web searches. A couple were interested, but the offer wasn’t what I was looking for. A couple showed interest, but ultimately passed. Blacklight landed, and I knew it was what I was looking for very early on.

The process of when I began to when I found my publisher was probably less than six months.

The whole team at Blacklight has been fantastic, too. It’s really been a dream experience. I feel very grateful.

 

In your day job, you teach English and creative writing to high schoolers. What are some of the most important lessons you hope your students will take away from your classes, and what have you learned from them?

I hope, more than anything, that my students learn that their words—and their stories—matter. If they truly put themselves into their work, it is art, and it is important. I also hope they leave my classroom knowing how important respect is. To other writers. To themselves. To their eventual readers. To people in general. Respect is key.

I’ve learned so much from my creative writing students. They inspire me. They motivate me. Seeing their excitement when they write something they are proud of reminds me why I write in the first place. They are also wonderfully eager readers. I love discussing stories with them and learning how they perceive texts. Creative writing classes are treasured places.

 

What are you working on next?

Earlier this year, I began working on my next set of stories. I’m a slow writer. Maybe a very slow writer. With it being so early in the process, it’s hard to say exactly what the next collection will look like, but I do think I’ll largely stay focused on the same kinds of themes. Loss, loneliness, and transformation are naturally interesting to me. There’ll be more experimentation with form. A story in the shape of a manual. A gameplay story. A transcript. A flash in questions. There’ll be plenty of magical weirdness, too, with, probably, pond monsters, apocalypses, a shark boy, kidnapping ghosts, and who knows what else. I just hope it won’t take me so long to write this second book!

Short Stories in September, Part I: Byatt, Hildyard, Okorie, Simpson

Each September I make a special effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to languish on my shelves unread. In 2020 I read eight collections for this challenge. This year I hope to outdo myself. I’m knee-deep in seven more collections at the moment, including a couple from the library and two from my set-aside-temporarily shelf. Here’s my first four.

 

Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories by A.S. Byatt (2021)

I’ve long considered Byatt my favourite author, and have read all of her published short story collections before. One I even reread last year. So when approaching this chronological selection of 18 stories, I skipped the couple I’d read recently, even though that includes perhaps my favourite stand-alone story of all time (“Medusa’s Ankles”), plus a few more that I’d read before. This time around, I found I wasn’t as interested in the historical stories in the Angels and Insects or Possession vein – chiefly “Precipice-Encurled,” a long story about Robert Browning from her first collection – and instead focused on stories where fantasy or horror breaks into everyday life, and writerly or metafictional ones.

As David Mitchell notes in his introduction, Byatt’s range, from fairy tales to historical realism, is almost overwhelming; it’s hard to do it justice in a short review, but I’ll highlight five brilliant stories beyond the title one. “The July Ghost,” an early story, is another that has stuck with me over the years, turning up in one of my Six Degrees posts. It’s a straight-up ghost story but also a tale within a tale being recounted by a man at a party, and blends sex and death in a creepy way. “Racine and the Tablecloth” pits a clever boarding school girl and her literature professor against each other in a tacit psychological conflict. “Who won, you will ask, Emily or Miss Crichton-Walker, since the Reader is mythical and detached?”

“A Lamia in the Cévennes,” about a seductive snake-spirit living in a painter’s swimming pool, provides a delicious lick of magic. I’m surprised I didn’t remember “Raw Material,” as it was a favourite on this reread. A working-class author teaches his creative writing students to write what they know and avoid melodrama. Yet most of them craft over-the-top graphic tales of torture and revenge. Only an unassuming octogenarian follows his instructions, spinning lovingly meticulous accounts of polishing stoves and washing laundry by hand in the old days. He is captivated by her stories, reading them aloud to an unappreciative class and even entering them into a competition. But the old woman’s life holds a sordid surprise. It’s mind-blowing how Byatt turns all our expectations for this story on their head and forces us to question nostalgia and the therapeutic value of writing fiction.

Five of the late stories were originally printed in other publications and had not previously been collected. Of these, I most liked “Dolls’ Eyes” (2013), which is available as a Comma Singles e-book and was in the anthology The New Uncanny. A schoolteacher who lives in a house full of dolls welcomes a new fellow teacher to be her lodger and trusts her with her love and her dolls, only to be betrayed and call down vengeance. “Sea Story,” which appeared in the Guardian, is a thoroughly depressing closer about the persistence of plastic (but how about that last line?!).

One of the things I most admire about Byatt is her use of colour, and visual detail in general. As Mitchell puts it, “It is not easy to think of another writer with so painterly and exact an eye for the colours, textures and appearances of things. The visual is in constant dialogue with the textual.” Witness in the autobiographical “Sugar” the descriptions of boiled sweets being made almost like blown glass in a grandfather’s factory, or the colourful minerals participating in the metamorphosis in “A Stone Woman.”

If you’re new to Byatt’s work, picking a handful of stories from this collection would be a great way of trying out her style and figuring out which of her full-length books you might like to read. Fans of Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes and Michèle Roberts are specially invited to the feast. (Public library)

Some favourite lines:

“Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite, of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss. Once known, I believe, they cannot be completely forgotten; they cast flashes and floods of paradisal light in odd places and at odd times.”

“the world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it. You have a way in. Take it. It may incidentally be a way out, too, as all skills are.”

 


After that in-depth review, I’ll give just brief responses to the next three slim volumes.

 

Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard (2021)

A debut trio of raw stories set in the Yorkshire countryside. In “Offcomers,” the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak threatens the happiness of a sheep-farming couple. The effects of rural isolation on a relationship resurface in “Outside Are the Dogs.” In “Cull Yaw,” a vegetarian gets involved with a butcher who’s keen on marketing mutton and ends up helping him with a grisly project. This was the stand-out for me. I appreciated the clear-eyed look at where food comes from. At the same time, narrator Star’s mother is ailing: a reminder that decay is inevitable and we are all naught but flesh and blood. I liked the prose well enough, but found the characterization a bit thin. One for readers of Andrew Michael Hurley and Cynan Jones. (See also Annabel’s review.)

A favourite passage:

“his mother silently spoons out second helpings of beef lasagne. Outside, the lasagne’s sisters cavort in the paddock.”

This story pamphlet was released by Broken Sleep Books, an indie publisher in Wales, in March. My thanks to Annabel for passing on her review copy.

 

This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie (2018)

Okorie emigrated from Nigeria to Ireland in 2005. Her time living in a direct provision hostel for asylum seekers informed the title story about women queuing for and squabbling over food rations, written in an African pidgin. In “Under the Awning,” a Black woman fictionalizes her experiences of racism into a second-person short story her classmates deem too bleak. The Author’s Note reveals that Okorie based this one on comments she herself got in a writers’ group. “The Egg Broke” returns to Nigeria and its old superstition about twins.

Fans of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will find a similar voice here, and enough variety to distract from the low page count (the book is padded out with an essay on refugees in Ireland) and so-so writing. (Little Free Library)

 

Dear George and Other Stories by Helen Simpson (1995)

This is the third time Simpson has made it into one of my September features (after Four Bare Legs in a Bed in 2018 and In the Driver’s Seat in 2019); safe to say she’s becoming one of my favourite short story writers. Deciding to have children (or not) looms large. In “When in Rome,” Geraldine is relieved to get her period as her relationship limps to an end. In “Last Orders,” the heavily pregnant protagonist, now 12 days overdue, fears the transformation ahead of her. “To Her Unready Boyfriend,” echoing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” has the narrator warn him time runs short for babymaking.

I also liked “Bed and Breakfast,” about a young couple hoping not to turn into their boring parents; “Caput Apri” and its magical twist on the story behind “The Boar’s Head Carol” (a Christmas story or two is a trademark of Simpson’s collections, like the focus on motherhood); and “Heavy Weather,” in which parents of two small children have a manic Dorset holiday that takes in some beloved sites like Hardy’s cottage and marvel at the simultaneous joys and tyranny of childrearing.

The gentle absurdity of “The Immaculate Bridegroom” reminded me of a previous Simpson story in which a woman marries herself, and “Creative Writing” connects back to two of the other collections I’ve featured here with its writers’ workshop setting. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Hexham)

Some favourite lines:

“You will not be you any more, her ego told her id. Not only will you have produced somebody else from inside you, someone quite different and separate, but you yourself will change into somebody quite different, overnight – a Mother.”

“Children were petal-skinned ogres, Frances realized, callous and whimsical, holding autocratic sway over lower, larger vassals like herself.”

 

Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?

The Best Books from the First Half of 2021

Hard to believe we’ve already crossed the midpoint of the year. My top 20 releases of 2021 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (fiction is dominating this year!), are below. I link to those I’ve already reviewed in full here or on Goodreads:

 

Fiction

Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.

 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…

 

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.

 

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.

 

In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.

 

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

 

 

Nonfiction

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

 

The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.

 

Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.

 

A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for TLS.)

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: Lamott’s best new essays in nearly a decade. The central theme is how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst. One key thing that has changed for her is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. In thinking of marriage, she writes about friendship, constancy, and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time.

 

A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creative writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Coming out on July 13th from the University of Michigan Press. My first review for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.

 

 

Poetry

Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Coming out on August 3rd from Graywolf Press. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, 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. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

Easter Reading from Richard Holloway and Richard Yates

I found a lesser-known Yates novel on my last trip to our local charity warehouse and saved it up for the titular holiday. I also remembered about a half-read theology book I’d packed away with the decorative wooden Easter egg and tin with a rabbit on in the holiday stash behind the spare room bed. And speaking of rabbits…

(I also gave suggestions of potential Easter reading, theological or not, in 2015, 2017, and 2018.)

 

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (1976)

Yates sets out his stall with the first line: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” I’d seen the film of Revolutionary Road, and my impression of Yates’s work was confirmed by this first taste of his fiction: an atmosphere of mid-century (sub)urban ennui, with the twin ills of alcoholism and adultery causing the characters to drift inexorably towards tragedy.

The novel follows Sarah and Emily Grimes from the 1930s to the 1970s. Emily, four years younger, has always known that her sister is the pretty one. Twenty-year-old Sarah is tapped to model traditional Chinese dress during an Easter parade and be photographed by the public relations office of United China Relief, for whom she works in fundraising. Sarah had plans with her fiancé, Tony Wilson, and is unenthusiastic about taking part in the photo shoot, while Emily thinks what she wouldn’t give to appear in the New York Times.

The mild rivalry resurfaces in the years to come, though the sisters take different paths: Sarah marries Tony, has three sons, and moves to the Wilson family home out on Long Island; in New York City, Emily keeps up an unending stream of lovers and English-major jobs: bookstore clerk, librarian, journal editor, and ad agency copywriter. Sarah envies Emily’s ability to live as a free spirit, while Emily wishes she could have Sarah’s loving family home – until she learns that it’s not as idyllic as it appears.

What I found most tragic wasn’t the whiskey-soused poor decisions so much as the fact that both sisters have unrealized ambitions as writers. They long to follow in their headline-writing father’s footsteps: Emily starts composing a personal exposé on abortion, and later a witty travel guide to the Midwest when she accompanies a poet boyfriend to Iowa so he can teach in the Writers’ Workshop; Sarah makes a capable start on a book about the Wilson family history. But both allow their projects to wither, and their promise is unfulfilled.

Yates’s authentic characterization, forthright prose, and incisive observations on the futility of modern life and the ways we choose to numb ourselves kept this from getting too depressing – though I don’t mind bleak books. Much of the novel sticks close to Emily, who can, infuriatingly, be her own worst enemy. Yet the ending offers her the hand of grace in the form of her nephew Peter, a minister. I read the beautiful final paragraphs again and again.

A readalike I’ve reviewed (sisters, one named Sarah!): A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble

My rating:

 

The Way of the Cross by Richard Holloway (1986)

Each year the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a short book for the Anglican Communion to use as Lenten reading. This study of the crucifixion focuses on seven of the Stations of the Cross, which are depicted in paintings or sculptures in most Anglo-Catholic churches, and emphasizes Jesus’s humble submission and the irony that the expected Son of God came as an executed criminal rather than an exalted king. Holloway weaves scripture passages and literary quotations through each chapter, and via discussion questions encourages readers to apply the themes of power, envy, sin, and the treatment of women to everyday life – not always entirely naturally, and the book does feel dated. Not a stand-out from a prolific author I’ve enjoyed in the past (e.g., Waiting for the Last Bus).

Favorite lines:

“the yearly remembrance of the life of Christ is a way of actualizing and making that life present now, in the universal mode of sacramental reality.”

“Powerlessness is the message of the cross”

My rating:

 


Recently read for book club; I’ll throw it in here for its dubious thematic significance (the protagonist starts off as an innocently blasphemous child and, disappointed with God as she’s encountered him thus far, gives that name to her pet rabbit):

 

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (2011)

I’d enjoyed Winman’s 2017 Tin Man so was very disappointed with this one. You can tell it was a debut novel because she really threw the kitchen sink in when it comes to quirkiness and magic realism. Secondary characters manage to be more engaging than the primary ones though they are little more than a thumbnail description: the lesbian actress aunt, the camp old lodger, etc. I also hate the use of 9/11 as a plot device, something I have encountered several times in the last couple of years, and stupid names like Jenny Penny. Really, the second part of this novel just feels like a rehearsal for Tin Man in that it sets up a close relationship between two gay men and a woman.

Two major themes, generally speaking, are intuition and trauma: characters predict things that they couldn’t know by ordinary means, and have had some awful things happen to them. Some bottle it all up, only for it to explode later in life; others decide not to let childhood trauma define them. This is a worthy topic, certainly, but feels at odds with the carefully cultivated lighthearted tone. Winman repeatedly introduces something sweet or hopeful only to undercut it with a tragic turn of events.

The title phrase comes from a moment of pure nostalgia for childhood, and I think the novel may have been better if it had limited itself to that rather than trying to follow all the characters into later life and sprawling over nearly 40 years. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that I knew much about Elly, the narrator, or what makes her tick, and Joe and Jenny Penny almost detract from each other. Pick one or the other, brother or best friend, to be the protagonist’s mainstay; both was unnecessary.

My rating:

Rathbones Folio Prize 2021 Shortlist Reviews & Prediction

I’ve nearly managed to read the whole Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist before the prize is announced on the evening of Wednesday the 24th. (You can sign up to watch the online ceremony here.) I reviewed the Baume and Ní Ghríofa as part of a Reading Ireland Month post on Saturday, and I’d reviewed the Machado last year in a feature on out-of-the-ordinary memoirs. This left another five books. Because they were short, I’ve been able to read and/or review another four over the past couple of weeks. (The only one unread is As You Were by Elaine Feeney, which I made a false start on last year and didn’t get a chance to try again.)

Nominations come from the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, so the shortlisted authors have been chosen by an audience of their peers. Indeed, I kept spotting judges’ or fellow nominees’ names in the books’ acknowledgements or blurbs. I tried to think about the eight as a whole and generalize about what the judges were impressed by. This was difficult for such a varied set of books, but I picked out two unifying factors: A distinctive voice, often with a musicality of language – even the books that don’t include poetry per se are attentive to word choice; and timeliness of theme yet timelessness of experience.

 

Poor by Caleb Femi

Femi brings his South London housing estate to life through poetry and photographs. This is a place where young Black men get stopped by the police for any reason or none, where new trainers are a status symbol, where boys’ arrogant or seductive posturing hides fear. Everyone has fallen comrades, and things like looting make sense when they’re the only way to protest (“nothing was said about the maddening of grief. Nothing was said about loss & how people take and take to fill the void of who’s no longer there”). The poems range from couplets to prose paragraphs and are full of slang, Caribbean patois, and biblical patterns. I particularly liked Part V, modelled on scripture with its genealogical “begats” and a handful of portraits:

The Story of Ruthless

Anyone smart enough

to study the food chain

of the estate knew exactly

who this warrior girl was;

once she lined eight boys

up against a wall,

emptied their pockets.

Nobody laughed at the boys.

Another that stood out for me was the two-part “A Designer Talks of Home / A Resident Talks of Home,” a found poem partially constructed from dialogue from a Netflix documentary on interior design. It ironically contrasts airy aesthetic notions with survival in a concrete wasteland. If you loved Surge by Jay Bernard, this should be next on your list.

 

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long 

I first read this when it was on the Costa Awards shortlist. As in Femi’s collection, race, sex, and religion come into play. The focus is on memories of coming of age, with the voice sometimes a girl’s and sometimes a grown woman’s. Her course veers between innocence and hazard. She must make her way beyond the world’s either/or distinctions and figure out how to be multiple people at once (biracial, bisexual). Her Black mother is a forceful presence; “Red Hoover” is a funny account of trying to date a Nigerian man to please her mother. Much of the rest of the book failed to click with me, but the experience of poetry is so subjective that I find it hard to give any specific reasons why that’s the case.

 

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

After the two poetry entries on the shortlist, it’s on to a book that, like A Ghost in the Throat, incorporates poetry in a playful but often dark narrative. In 1976, two competitive American fishermen, a father-and-son pair down from Florida, catch a mermaid off of the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch. Like trophy hunters, the men take photos with her; they feel a mixture of repulsion and sexual attraction. Is she a fish, or an object of desire? In the recent past, David Baptiste recalls what happened next through his journal entries. He kept the mermaid, Aycayia, in his bathtub and she gradually shed her tail and turned back into a Taino indigenous woman covered in tattoos and fond of fruit. Her people were murdered and abused, and the curse that was placed on her runs deep, threatening to overtake her even as she falls in love with David. This reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise. I loved that Aycayia’s testimony was delivered in poetry, but this short, magical story came and went without leaving any impression on me.

 

Indelicacy by Amina Cain 

Having heard that this was about a cleaner at an art museum, I expected it to be a readalike of Asunder by Chloe Aridjis, a beautifully understated tale of ghostly perils faced by a guard at London’s National Gallery. Indelicacy is more fable-like. Vitória’s life is in two halves: when she worked at the museum and had to forego meals to buy new things, versus after she met her rich husband and became a writer. Increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage, she then comes up with an escape plot involving her hostile maid. Meanwhile, she makes friends with a younger ballet student and keeps in touch with her fellow cleaner, Antoinette, a pregnant newlywed. Vitória tries sex and drugs to make her feel something. Refusing to eat meat and trying to persuade Antoinette not to baptize her baby become her peculiar twin campaigns.

The novella belongs to no specific time or place; while Cain lives in Los Angeles, this most closely resembles ‘wan husks’ of European autofiction in translation. Vitória issues pretentious statements as flat as the painting style she claims to love. Some are so ridiculous they end up being (perhaps unintentionally) funny: “We weren’t different from the cucumber, the melon, the lettuce, the apple. Not really.” The book’s most extraordinary passage is her husband’s rambling, defensive monologue, which includes the lines “You’re like an old piece of pie I can’t throw away, a very good pie. But I rescued you.”

It seems this has been received as a feminist story, a cheeky parable of what happens when a woman needs a room of her own but is trapped by her social class. When I read in the Acknowledgements that Cain took lines and character names from Octavia E. Butler, Jean Genet, Clarice Lispector, and Jean Rhys, I felt cheated, as if the author had been engaged in a self-indulgent writing exercise. This was the shortlisted book I was most excited to read, yet ended up being the biggest disappointment.

 

On the whole, the Folio shortlist ended up not being particularly to my taste this year, but I can, at least to an extent, appreciate why these eight books were considered worthy of celebration. The authors are “writers’ writers” for sure, though in some cases that means they may fail to connect with readers. There was, however, some crossover this year with some more populist prizes like the Costa Awards (Roffey won the overall Costa Book of the Year).

The crystal-clear winner for me is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, her memoir of an abusive same-sex relationship. Written in the second person and in short sections that examine her memories from different angles, it’s a masterpiece and a real game changer for the genre – which I’m sure is just what the judges are looking for.

The only book on the shortlist that came anywhere close to this one, for me, was A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, an elegant piece of feminist autofiction that weaves in biography, imagination, and poetry. It would be a fine runner-up choice.

(On the Rathbones Folio Prize Twitter account, you will find lots of additional goodies like links to related articles and interviews, and videos with short readings from each author.)

My thanks to the publishers and FMcM Associates for the free copies for review.

Faber Live Fiction Showcase 2020

In February 2018 Annabel and I attended the Faber Spring Party with some other blogger friends, the first time I’d been to such an event. The hoped-for repeat invitation never came last year, but 2020’s perverse gifts meant I could attend the publisher’s latest showcase as a webinar. It was free to sign up to be a Faber member (you can do so here), and now I get e-mails about new releases and interesting upcoming events.

Six new and forthcoming novels were featured last night, with author readings. There were some connection issues where the sound and image froze for a couple seconds so the voice was temporarily out of sync with the picture, which made it more difficult to engage with the extracts, but I still enjoyed hearing about these new-to-me writers.

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

This one came out in April, and was already on my radar. It’s about a widow, Betty, her son, Solo, and their lodger, Mr. Chetan, and how people come together to make a family despite secrets and “way too much rum”. Persaud read two excerpts, one in Betty’s voice and one from Mr. Chetan’s perspective. I loved the Trinidadian accents. (Comes with praise from Claire Adam and Marlon James.)

Meanwhile in Dopamine City by D.B.C. Pierre

Published in August and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. Pierre described his new novel as a book of voices about a single father trying to withhold a smartphone from his youngest child. One passage he read had a professor speaking to a Silicon Valley type; another was someone trying to compose the perfect tweet after hearing of the death of someone they don’t like. I’ve never read any Pierre and I don’t think I’ll start now.

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

Out on January 21st. A literary debut with a touch of the thriller, set in Philadelphia in 1981 and starring a large Irish American family. (Mannion herself is from Philadelphia but now lives in County Sligo.) She read from the first chapter, about a quarrelsome family drive about to go badly wrong. I was reminded of Lorrie Moore and Ann Patchett.

little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Out on January 14th. This one was already on my TBR. It’s about a day in the life of a woman in her twenties. While going through the daily routine of office life, she’s suppressing memories of a recent sexual assault. Watson’s delivery was very engaging. She read a passage in which the protagonist neurotically overthinks a colleague asking her what she’s been reading lately. “Why is it when anyone asks what I’ve read I go blank?!” (I can sympathize.)

Come Join Our Disease by Sam Byers

Byers’s third novel comes out on March 18th. Maya, who’s homeless, is offered a spot on a rehabilitation and wellness program – if she’ll document it on Instagram. He read about Maya being seized from her encampment. Two early Goodreads reviews made me laugh out loud and convinced me this isn’t for me: “Reads like David Foster Wallace mixed with Marquis de Sade in a blender” and “Promising start but soon disappears up its own arse.”

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross

On the magical Caribbean island of Popisho, something odd is happening to all of the women. I think (though I had some trouble hearing and following) their genitals are falling off, rendering sex a little difficult. The patois was similar to Persaud’s Trini, and, like little scratch, this is a circadian novel. It made me think of the descriptions of Monique Roffey’s books. I found the premise a little silly, though. This is unlike to draw in those suspicious of magic realism.

If I had to pick just one? I’m going to request a proof copy of little scratch. And my library system has two copies, so I’ll also place a hold and try to read Love After Love soon (though before the end of the year now looks doubtful). It helped that these two authors gave the best readings.

Two Recent Reviews for BookBrowse

 

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

A legend from Mytting’s hometown tells of two centuries-old church bells that, like conjoined twins, were never meant to be separated. Inspired by that story and by the real-life move of a stave church from Norway to what is now Poland, he embarked on a trilogy in which history and myth mingle to determine the future of the isolated village of Butangen. The novel is constructed around compelling dichotomies. Astrid Hekne, a feminist ahead of her time, is in contrast with the local pastor’s conventional views on gender roles. She also represents the village’s unlearned folk; Deborah Dawkin successfully captures Mytting’s use of dialect in her translation, making Astrid sound like one of Thomas Hardy’s rustic characters.

  • See my full review at BookBrowse.
  • See also my related article on stave churches.
  • One of the coolest things I did during the first pandemic lockdown in the UK was attend an online book club meeting on The Bell in the Lake, run by MacLehose Press, Mytting’s UK publisher. It was so neat to see the author and translator speak “in person” via a Zoom meeting and to ask him a couple of questions in the chat window.
  • A readalike (and one of my all-time favorite novels) is Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned.

 

Memorial by Bryan Washington

In Washington’s debut novel, set in Houston and Osaka, two young men reassess their commitments to their families and to each other. The narration is split between Benson and Mike, behind whose apparent lack of affect is a quiet seam of emotion. Both young men are still shaken by their parents’ separations, and haunted by patterns of abuse and addiction. Flashbacks to how they met create a tender backstory for a limping romance. Although the title (like most of the story titles in Lot) refers to a Houston neighborhood, it has broader significance, inviting readers to think about the place our loved ones have in our memories. Despite the tough issues the characters face, their story is warm-hearted rather than grim. Memorial is a candid, bittersweet work from a talented young writer whose career I will follow with interest.

  • See my full review at BookBrowse.
  • See also my related article on the use of quotation marks (or not!) to designate speech.
  • I enjoyed this so much that I immediately ordered Lot with my birthday money. I’d particularly recommend it if you want an earthier version of Brandon Taylor’s Booker-shortlisted Real Life (which I’m halfway through and enjoying, though I can see the criticisms about its dry, slightly effete prose).
  • This came out in the USA from Riverhead in late October, but UK readers have to wait until January 7th (Atlantic Books).

Short Stories in September, Part I

Each September I make a bit more of an effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to sit on my shelves and Kindle unread. I’ve read three collections recently, all of them released this August or September, and I have a few more on the go to report on later in the month.

 

Likes by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

This was a hit and miss collection for me: I only loved one of the stories, and enjoyed another three; touches of magic realism à la Aimee Bender produce the two weakest stories, and there are a few that simply tail off without having made a point. My favorite was “Many a Little Makes,” about a trio of childhood best friends whose silly sleepover days come to an end as they develop separate interests and one girl sleeps with another one’s brother. In “Tell Me My Name,” set in a post-economic collapse California, an actress who was a gay icon back in New York City pitches a TV show to the narrator’s wife, who makes kids’ shows.

“Julia and Sunny,” about two couples – one that makes it and one that doesn’t – who all met in medical school, reminded me of a Wallace Stegner plot. “The Bears” has a wispy resemblance to Goldilocks and the Three Bears and stars a woman convalescing from a miscarriage at a retreat center while writing a chapter on William James. In James’s famous metaphor involving a bear, bodily action precedes emotion – we are afraid because we flee; not vice versa. The touch of magic in this story is light enough to not be off-putting, whereas “The Erlking” and “The Young Wife’s Tale” take their fairy tale similarities too far.

The title story, about a father trying to understand his 12-year-old through her Instagram posts either side of the Trump election, is promising but doesn’t go anywhere, and “The Burglar” and “Bedtime Story” struck me as equally insubstantial, making nothing of their setups. Seven of these nine stories had been previously published in other publications in some form.

My rating:

Published in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.

 

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

Parsons’s debut collection, longlisted for the U.S. National Book Award in 2019, contains a dozen gritty stories set in or remembering her native Texas. Eleven of the 12 are in the first person, with the mostly female narrators unnamed or underdeveloped and thus difficult to differentiate from each other. The homogeneity of voice and recurring themes – drug use, dysfunctional families, overweight bodies, lesbian or lopsided relationships – lead to monotony.

“Glow Hunter” and “We Don’t Come Natural to It” are representative: in the former, Sarah and her girlfriend Bo have sex and go for a drive while tripping on magic mushrooms; in the latter, the narrator has a crush on her co-worker Suki, who has lost 200 pounds, and they remain obsessed with their and others’ fat bodies (the references are inescapable: “a pudgy,” “the fatty,” “some cow,” “thinspiration”). The opening story, “Guts,” is uncomfortable for the way that it both fetishizes fat and medicalizes sex: when unreliable, alcoholic receptionist Sheila turns up at her boyfriend Tim’s hospital saying there’s something wrong with her internally, he performs an examination that’s part striptease and part children playing doctor.

“The Light Will Pour In” is refreshingly different for its Lolita-type situation. “Into the Fold,” set at a girls’ boarding school, reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy. In “Fiddlebacks,” my favorite, siblings on a night hunt for creepy-crawlies come across their newly religious mother and the handyman trysting in a car. “Starlite,” the only one in the third person, has colleagues, one a supervisor and both married, meet up in a seedy motel for drugs and junk food. The shortest stories at just a few pages each, “In Our Circle” and “The Animal Part” animate art therapy in a mental hospital and urban legends told while camping (though I’d forgotten it, I’d encountered the former in The Best Small Fictions 2017).

These stories engaged me at neither the sentence level nor the plot level, but many readers (and critics) have felt otherwise. Here are two lines I liked, from “Glow Hunter”: “Bo says everything that scares you is something to poke at with a stick, to pick up and turn in your hands” & “I’m very aware that we are organisms on the surface of a rock, orbiting a burning star.”

My rating:

My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South

“In the modern world, you might be easily forgotten, but you could also carve out your own niche.”

In the 10 stories of this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for their losses, and leave a legacy. In “Keith Prime,” a widowed nurse works at a warehouse that produces unconscious specimens for organ harvesting. When her favorite Keith wakes up, she agrees to raise him at home, but human development and emotional connection are inconveniences in a commodity. The narrator of “FAQs about Your Craniotomy” is a female brain surgeon who starts out by giving literal answers to potential patient questions and then segues into bitterly funny reflections on life after her husband’s suicide.

In “Architecture for Monsters,” a young woman interviews Helen Dannenforth, a formidable female architect whose designs are inspired by anatomy, specifically by her disabled daughter’s condition. The narrator’s mother, a molecular biologist, was assaulted and murdered by a lab technician. Dannenforth is a hero/replacement mother figure to her, even after she learns about the complicated situation with the architect’s sister, who was the surrogate for her niece but then got cut out of the child’s life.

I particularly liked “The Age of Love,” a funny one in which the nurses at a nursing home listen in to their elderly patients’ calls to phone sex lines. Their conversations aren’t about smut so much as they’re about loneliness and nostalgia. Another favorite of mine was “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” about a Martha’s Vineyard camp for teens who need a better relationship with social media. When camper Rex Hasselbach, who had posted foul content in his father’s name to get revenge on being beaten up at home, goes missing, three counselors with guilt or identity issues of their own go looking for him. The title story also engages with social media as a woman obsessively tracks her rapist and works as a “digital media curator” deleting distressing video content.

All of the characters have had a bereavement or other traumatic incident and are looking for the best way to move on, but some make bizarre and unhealthy decisions – such as to restage events from a dead daughter’s life, to breastfeed grown men, or to communicate by text with a deceased wife. These quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and the subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture. I’ll be looking out for what Mary South does next.

(Note: The cover image is a creepily pixelated version of the author’s photo.)

My rating:

My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?

Adventures in Rereading: The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

Last year I reviewed Tenth of December by George Saunders on its title date; this year I couldn’t resist rereading one of my favorites from 2014 for today’s date (which just so happens to be Bloomsday, made famous by James Joyce’s Ulysses), The Sixteenth of June.

I responded to the novel at length when it first came out. No point in reinventing the wheel, so here are mildly edited paragraphs of synopsis from my review for The Bookbag:

Maya Lang’s playful and exquisitely accomplished debut novel, set on the centenary of the original Bloomsday, transplants many characters and set pieces from Ulysses to near-contemporary Philadelphia. Don’t fret, though – even if, like me, you haven’t read Ulysses, you’ll have no trouble following the thread. In fact, Lang dedicates her book to “all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven’t wanted to try).” (Though if you wish to spot parallels, pull up any online summary of Ulysses; there is also a page on Lang’s website listing her direct quotations from Joyce.)

On June 16, 2004, brothers Leopold and Stephen Portman have two major commitments: their grandmother Hannah’s funeral is happening at the local synagogue in the morning; and their parents’ annual Bloomsday party will take place at their opulent Delancey Street home in the evening. Around those two thematic poles – the genuine emotions of grief and regret on the one hand, and the realm of superficial entertainment on the other – the novel expands outward to provide a nuanced picture of three ambivalent twenty-something lives.

The third side of this atypical love triangle is Nora, Stephen’s best friend from Yale – and Leo’s fiancée. Nora, a trained opera singer, is still reeling from her mother’s death from cancer one year ago. She’s been engaging in self-harming behavior, and Leo – a macho, literal-minded IT consultant – just wants to fix her. Nora and Stephen, by contrast, are sensitive, artistic souls who seem better suited to each other. Stephen, too, is struggling to find a meaning in death, but also to finish his languishing dissertation on Virginia Woolf.

Literature is almost as potent a marker of upper-class status as money here: some of the Portmans might not have even read Joyce’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop them name-dropping and maintaining the pretense of being well-read. While Lang might not mimic the extremes of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, she prioritizes interiority over external action by using a close third-person voice that shifts between her main characters’ points of view. Their histories and thoughts are revealed mostly through interior monologues and conversations. Lang’s writing is full of mordant shards of humor; one of my favorite lines was “No one in a eulogy ever said, She watched TV with the volume on too loud.”


During my rereading, I was captivated more by the portraits of grief than by the subtle intellectual and class differences. I appreciated the characterization and the Joycean peekaboo, and the dialogue and shifts between perspectives still felt fresh and effortless. I could relate to Stephen and Nora’s feelings of being stuck and unsure how to move on in life. And the ending, which I’d completely forgotten, was perfect. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much the second time around, but it’s still a treasured signed copy on my shelf.

My original rating (June 2014):

My rating now:

Readalikes: Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (my upcoming Doorstopper of the Month).

(See also my review of Lang’s recent memoir, What We Carry.)

 

Alas, I’ve also had a couple of failed rereading attempts recently…

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)

I remembered this as a zany family history quest turned into fiction. A Jewish-American character named Jonathan Safran Foer travels to (fictional) Trachimbrod, Ukraine to find the traces of his ancestors and, specifically, the woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. I had totally forgotten about the comic narration via letters from Jonathan’s translator/tour guide, Alexander, who fancies himself a ladies’ man and whose English is full of comic thesaurus use (e.g. “Do not dub me that,” “Guilelessly yours”). This was amusing, but got to be a bit much. I’d also forgotten about the dense magic realism of the historical sections. As with A Visit from the Goon Squad, what felt dazzlingly clever on a first read (in January 2011) failed to capture me a second time. [35 pages]

Interestingly, Foer’s mother, Esther, released a memoir earlier this year, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. It’s about the family history her son turned into quirky autofiction: a largely fruitless trip he took to Ukraine to research his maternal grandfather’s life for his Princeton thesis, and a more productive follow-up trip she took with her older son in 2009. Esther Safran Foer was born in Poland and lived in a German displaced persons camp until she and her parents emigrated to Washington, D.C. in 1949. Her father committed suicide in 1954, making him almost a belated victim of the Holocaust. The stories she hears in Ukraine – of the slaughter of entire communities; of moments of good luck that allowed her parents to, separately, survive and find each other – are remarkable, but the book’s prose, while capable, never sings. Plus, she references her son’s novel so often that I wondered why someone would read her book when they could read his instead.

 

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

This was an all-time favorite when it first came out. I remembered a sophisticated homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, featuring a biracial family in Cambridge, Mass. I remembered no specifics beyond a giant music store and (embarrassingly) an awkward sex scene. Howard Belsey’s long-distance rivalry with a fellow Rembrandt scholar gets personal when the Kipps family relocates from London to the Boston suburbs for Monty to be the new celebrity lecturer at the same college. Howard is in the doghouse with his African-American wife, Kiki, after having an affair. The Belsey boy and Kipps girl have an awkward romantic history. Zora Belsey is smitten with a lower-class spoken word poet she meets after a classical concert in the park when they pick up each other’s Discmans by accident (so dated!). All of the portraits felt like stereotypes to me, and there was so much telling, so much backstory, so many unnecessary secondary characters. Before I would have said this was my obvious Women’s Prize winner of winners, but now I have no idea what I’ll vote for. [107 pages]

 

Currently rereading: Watership Down by Richard Adams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

To reread soon: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty & Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

 

Done any rereading lately?

Japanese Literature Challenge: Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

I was utterly entranced by my first two Haruki Murakami novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore; both are so richly layered, dreamlike and bizarre. For Japanese Literature Challenge 13, run by Meredith of Dolce Belezza, I decided to pick up another of his books. First I tried Norwegian Wood, but, ironically, it was so normal (from the little I read, a standard, nostalgic coming-of-age novel set on a college campus) that I felt disoriented and set it down after 20 pages – I’ll keep it on the shelf for some other time. Instead I read A Wild Sheep Chase, a fairly short one for Murakami at just under 300 pages.

I loved the zany premise: the unnamed narrator, who works for a small advertising firm, gets a threatening visit one day. A PR bulletin his company created happens to feature a photo his friend The Rat sent him of a traditional Hokkaido landscape with sheep, among which is visible one particular sheep – “the third sheep from the right in the front row” – with a distinctive brown star-shaped birthmark. “The Boss” and his emissary give the narrator an ultimatum: he has two months to find this sheep, or he’ll be driven out of business.

So, along with his girlfriend, who has psychic powers and unbelievably seductive ears, he sets off by train in search of typical mountains-and-fields scenery. She chooses, seemingly at random, a hotel that turns out to be the former headquarters of the Hokkaido Ovine Association; its owner’s father, who lives like a hermit upstairs, is the Sheep Professor. Not just an expert on sheep, he believes he was at one time possessed by the star-marked sheep.

As the narrator makes his way to The Rat’s mountain hideaway, an hour and a half from the nearest town, he’s moving further from rational explanations and deeper into solitude and communion with ghosts. There’s some trademark Murakami strangeness, but the book is too short to give free rein to the magic realist plot, and I felt like there were too many loose ends after his return from The Rat’s, especially around his girlfriend’s disappearance.

Also, after just three and a bit of his novels (I DNFed Killing Commendatore in 2018), I’m already noticing a lazy reliance on the same setup: a directionless thirtysomething man whose marriage has recently fallen apart starts a new and pretty peculiar life. There are also a couple of specific failings that I’m noticing for the second or third time now: a slow, pointless start (the first 40 pages here could easily be shaved off) and slight misogyny: “Women with their clothes off have a frightening similarity. Always throws me for a loop.”

I appreciate the imagination that went into this, and enjoyed some specific witty metaphors (“the effect was unpalatable. Like serving sherbet and broccoli on the same silver platter” and “The elevator shook like a large dog with lung disease”) and observant lines (“Age certainly hasn’t conferred any smarts on me. Character maybe, but mediocrity is a constant”), but overall the novel was a letdown. Can anyone recommend me another surefire Murakami?

My rating:

 

Note: This was Murakami’s first novel to be translated into English, in 1989. I had no idea that it’s actually the third book out of four in a series called “The Rat.”