I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn
Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”
In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.
Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.
With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.
Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock
Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.
It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.
This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall
[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]
Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.
Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.
With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.
You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.
With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.
Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.
The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.
There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.
As for the other five on the shortlist…
- I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
- I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*
- I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
- I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
- Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:
He had a masculinity.
His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.
He held seminars and wore red socks.
To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.
The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.
I swooned in admiration of him.
Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.
In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:
Flames by Robbie Arnott
This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.
A favorite passage:
“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.
See Susan’s review for a more enthusiastic response.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)
Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)
The other three books on the shortlist are:
- Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
- Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
- Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.
(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)
Have you read something from the (Not the) Booker shortlist(s)? Any predictions for next week?
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist was announced on Tuesday. From the prize’s website, you can click on any of these 12 books’ covers, titles or authors to get more information about them.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the prize. As always, it’s a strong and varied set of nominees, with an overall focus on gender and mental health. Here are some initial thoughts (see also Laura’s thorough rundown of the 12 nominees):
- I correctly predicted just two, Sight by Jessie Greengrass and Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar, but had read another three: This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein, Amateur by Thomas Page McBee, and Educated by Tara Westover (reviewed for BookBrowse).
- I’m particularly delighted to see Edelstein on the longlist as her book was one of my runners-up from last year and deserves more attention.
- I’m not personally a huge fan of the Greengrass or McBee books, but can certainly see why the judges thought them worthy of inclusion.
- Though it’s a brilliant memoir, I never would have thought to put Educated on my potential Wellcome list. However, the more I think about it, the more health elements it has: her father’s possible bipolar disorder, her brother’s brain damage, her survivalist family’s rejection of modern medicine, her mother’s career in midwifery and herbalism, and her own mental breakdown at Cambridge.
- Books I knew about and was keen to read but hadn’t thought of in conjunction with the prize: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
- Novels I had heard of but wasn’t necessarily interested in beforehand: Murmur by Will Eaves and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I went to get Freshwater from the library the afternoon of the longlist announcement and am now 60 pages in. I’d be tempted to call it this year’s Stay with Me except that the magic realist elements are much stronger here, reminding me of what I know about work by Chigozie Obioma and Ben Okri. The novel is narrated in the first person plural by a pair of (gods? demons? spirits?) inhabiting Ada’s head.
- And lastly, there are a few books I had never even heard of: Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication by Thomas Abraham, Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning, and Astroturf by Matthew Sperling. I’m keen on the Fanning but not so much on the other two. Polio will likely make it to the shortlist as this year’s answer to The Vaccine Race; if it does, I’ll read it then.
Some statistics on this year’s longlist, courtesy of a press release sent by Midas PR:
- Five novels (two more than last year – I think we can see the influence of novelist Elif Shafak), five memoirs, one biography, and one further nonfiction title
- Six debut authors
- Six titles from independent publishers (Canongate, CB Editions, Faber & Faber, Oneworld, Hurst Publishers, and The Text Publishing Company)
- Most of the authors are British or American, while Fanning is Irish (Emezi is Nigerian-American, Jauhar is Indian-American, and Krasnostein is Australian-American).
Chair of judges Elif Shafak writes: “In a world that remains sadly divided into echo chambers and mental ghettoes, this prize is unique in its ability to connect various disciplines: medicine, health, literature, art and science. Reading and discussing at length all the books on our list has been fascinating from the very start. We now have a wonderful longlist, of which we are all very proud. Although it sure won’t be easy to choose the shortlist, and then, finally, the winner, I am thrilled about and truly grateful for this fascinating journey through stories, ideas, ground-breaking research and revolutionary knowledge.”
We of the shadow panel have divided up the longlist titles between us as follows (though we may well each get hold of and read more of the books, simply out of personal interest) and will post reviews on our blogs within the next five weeks.
Amateur: A true story about what makes a man by Thomas Page McBee – LAURA
Astroturf by Matthew Sperling – PAUL
Educated by Tara Westover – CLARE
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi – REBECCA
Heart: A history by Sandeep Jauhar – LAURA
Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning – REBECCA
Murmur by Will Eaves – PAUL
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – CLARE
Polio: The odyssey of eradication by Thomas Abraham – ANNABEL
[Sight by Jessie Greengrass – 4 of us have read this; I’ll post a composite of our thoughts]
The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster by Sarah Krasnostein – ANNABEL
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein – LAURA
The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.
We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.
Are there any books on here that you’d like to read?
Have you noticed how many botanical titles and covers are out there this year? If you appreciate this publishing trend as much as I do, and especially if you enjoyed Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, I can highly recommend The Long Forgotten. David Whitehouse’s third novel features plant hunting everywhere from Chile to Namibia, but it opens underwater: Professor Jeremiah Cole is in a submersible 200 miles west of Perth, Australia. He’s running out of oxygen down there when he collides with a goose-beaked whale that pulls his craft to the surface. The injured whale soon dies, and when the professor’s crew brings its corpse on board to perform an autopsy, they discover in its belly the black box of Flight PS570, lost on its way from Jakarta to London 30 years ago and dubbed “The Long Forgotten.”
Whitehouse’s inspiration for the novel was the Malaysian Airlines flight that went missing in 2014, along with a story he read about the Rafflesia “corpse flower” 15 years ago. After the curious incident with the whale, more gentle magic is to come as we meet Dove, a lonely young man who works as an ambulance dispatcher in present-day London and starts tuning into the memories of Peter Manyweathers. In 1980s New York City, Peter gave up cleaning the houses of the dead to chase after the exotic plants mentioned in a love letter he found in an encyclopedia. Through a local botanical etching club he met Dr. Hens Berg, a memory researcher from Denmark, who encouraged him in the quest. Soon Peter was off to China and Gibraltar to find rare plants under a washing machine or along a steep cliff face. Along the way he fell in love and had to decide whom to trust and what was of most value to him.
How Peter and Dove are connected is a mystery whose unspooling is a continual surprise. I found it quite unusual that this novel ends with the plane crash; I can think of books that start with one, like Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, but no others that end on one. This late flashback to the crash, followed by a memorial service delivered by Prof. Cole, proves that the flight’s victims are far from forgotten. The mixture of genres, including magic realism, made me think of Haruki Murakami, and Whitehouse’s style is also slightly reminiscent of Joshua Ferris and Mark Haddon. Themes of memory and family, along with vivid scenes set around the globe and bizarre plants that trap sheep or reek of death, make this book stand out. If any of these elements even vaguely appeal to you, it’s well worth taking a chance on it.
A favorite passage:
“There on a ledge no bigger than an upturned hand was the Gibraltar campion. It was about forty centimeters high, with sun-kissed green leaves, no more interesting to the casual observer than any houseplant, quite ugly even. But nestled amongst the leaves, swaying, Peter found a small and beautifully detailed bilobed flower. White from a distance, up close an ethereal explosion of colour washed across the petals, from pink to purple. Elegant and soft, but surviving here, battered like a lighthouse by the wind and waves, a candle lit inside a tempest.
Peter was overcome by the sheer unlikeliness of its existence, and felt a kinship with the flower that seemed to distort him for a second. Above them, an infinite number of galaxies, planets and possibilities. Unknowns of a number that cannot be expressed. Yet here, on a protruding ledge and at the end of a rope, endless variables had colluded to bring him and the flower together.”
The Long Forgotten was published by Picador on March 22nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me on the blog tour.
“A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.”
Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck isn’t like the other children in her North Yorkshire town. The daughter of Pete, a grizzled fisherman, and Kate, an Irish Catholic woman who’s in a mental hospital after a presumed suicide attempt, Ellie was raised on stories of selkies and martyrdoms. Superstition infuses her daily life, making her afraid of pool trips with her classmates – it’s bad luck for fishermen to learn to swim – and leading her to expect her dead grandmother’s soul to waft in through an open window on Halloween night.
What with bullies’ beatings and her teacher Mr. Lockwood’s disapproval, it’s no wonder Ellie misses lots of school, going sea-coaling with her father or running off to the coast alone instead. But with Christmas approaching and Kate due home from the hospital, Ellie’s absences warrant an official visit. Social worker May Fletcher, the mother of Ellie’s new friend Fletch, is also concerned about Ellie’s home life. “How Saints Die,” Ellie and Fletch’s gruesome skit performed as an addendum to the school Nativity play, seems like proof that something is seriously wrong.
This is performance poet Carmen Marcus’s debut novel; from what I can tell it seems partially autobiographical. It powerfully conveys the pull of the sea and the isolation of an unconventional 1980s childhood. The dreamy, hypnotic prose alternates passages from Ellie’s perspective with shorter chapters from the points of view of the adults in her life, including her father, busybody neighbor Mrs. Forster, and May Fletcher. Marcus is equally skilled at the almost stream-of-consciousness passages describing Ellie’s trips to the sea and at humorous one-line descriptions:
Sand and salt in the cut, stinging. Her dad would know what to do. She wants him here, now, to show her. Without him the beach takes her up entirely, the shushshush of the sea and the coarse cackle of the waders at the waters-edge, creakcrackcreakcrackyawyaw; the wind tugging at the shell of her ear. All of it pulling, nipping, cutting at her – snipsnipsnip – and now blood, her edges ragged and wet.
Mrs Forster always smells faintly sweet and acidic like old Christmas cake.
– What are sins?
– They’re like germs but in your thoughts.
It’s easy to get lost in Ellie’s supernatural world of spirits and sea wolves, while the occasional outsider views make it clear just how dangerous some of her notions could be. Like Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human, this sets up an intriguing contrast between magic realism and madness. The language is full of transformations and fairy tale tropes. I was reminded at times of Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. Although there is perhaps one perilous situation too many at the climax and the resolution is a bit drawn out (and there is also less punctuation than I would like), this is still a strong and absorbing first novel and one I fully expect to see on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
How Saints Die is published in the UK today, July 13th, by Harvill Secker. My thanks to Louise Court for sending a free copy for review.
I don’t know why I resisted reading Haruki Murakami for so long. I have some friends who are big fans of his work, but I always thought his fiction would be a bit too odd for me. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994), which I just finished last night, is certainly bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements in the way that dreams do. This is the story of a young man who’s become lost in his own life and is looking for the way back. It’s a hero’s quest through a baffling, mystical underworld.
It all starts with a missing cat and a dirty phone call. It’s 1984. Thirty-year-old Toru Okada recently left his job as a law clerk and has been aimlessly spending days at home while his wife, Kumiko, goes out to her magazine editor job. A week ago the cat – named Noboru Wataya, after Toru’s hateful brother-in-law – disappeared, so he’s cooking himself some spaghetti and pondering his cat hunting strategy when he gets a call from what seems to be a phone sex hotline, except that the female speaker claims to know him well. And unexpected phone calls just keep coming, including from Malta Kano, a clairvoyant who foretells that he will experience “Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.”
There’s a narrow alleyway behind their suburban Tokyo house that cuts between two rows of back gardens. On these hot June days, it’s an almost preternaturally still place, with the quiet broken only by the mechanical-sounding call of a creature Toru thinks of as the wind-up bird. He heads down the alley to look for the cat, but all he finds is the deserted (haunted?) Miyawaki house with a bird sculpture and an old, dry well in its yard. He also meets May Kasahara, a blunt sixteen-year-old who’s taking a year off school after a motorcycle accident.
So far, so realist (mostly). But things keep getting weirder, mainly through a series of further appearances and disappearances. The first to go is Kumiko, who says she’s been having an affair. Toru doesn’t believe, her, though. Or, rather, he doesn’t think a pattern of cheating is enough of an explanation for her leaving everything behind one morning. He knows there’s a deeper force driving this, and he’s determined to rescue his wife from it. Meanwhile, he has more encounters with and stories of pain from peculiar characters – everyone from a World War II lieutenant and a former fashion designer to Malta Kano’s ex-prostitute sister, Creta.
Rather like a Kafka antihero, Toru simply can’t grasp what’s happening to him.
I shook my head. Too many things were being left unexplained. The one thing I understood for sure was that I didn’t understand a thing. … “I’m sick of riddles. I need something concrete that I can get my hands on. Hard facts. Something I can use as a lever to pry the door open. That’s what I want.”
Yet his first-person narration anchors the book, making him an Everyman who we journey along with in his state of confusion. So even as the plot gets increasingly outlandish and somewhat taken over by other voices – via long monologues, letters, or tales stored in computer files – we always have this sympathetic protagonist to come home to. Like in Dickens’s novels, I noticed that minor characters like the Kano sisters keep turning up just when you’re in danger of forgetting them due to the weight of the intervening pages.
Yesterday I gave a gleeful squeal when a review copy of just 190 pages arrived. “So you love short books?” my husband asked. I do … but I also adore long ones that have a darn good reason to be that long – creating a whole world you can get lost in. That’s what I’m trying to celebrate with this year’s monthly Doorstopper series: books whose 500+ pages fly by, best consumed in big gulps. Such won’t always be the case: City on Fire and Hame both felt like a slog in places, though were ultimately worth engaging with. But my first encounter with Murakami showcased expansive storytelling at its best. I want to read more books like this.
I’m not entirely sure I comprehended all that happens at the end of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but that doesn’t really matter. The novel left me mesmerized, shaking my head as if waking up from the strangest dream but hoping to someday go back to its world. And for 99.8% of it I forgot that I was reading a work in translation.
If I were to make a word cloud of important phrases from the book, it would look off the wall: lemon drops, a necktie, wells, bald men, baseball bats, birthmarks, being skinned alive, zoo animals, a hotel room, a wig factory, and so on. That list might intrigue you; equally, it might put you off in the same way that I was always daunted by the idea of Japanese magic realism. Let me assure you, this stunning novel is so much more than the sum of its parts.
How do you feel about Murakami? Which of his books should I read next?
Camilla Grudova lives in Toronto and has a degree in Art History and Germany from McGill University of Montreal. The Doll’s Alphabet, her debut collection, sets surreal tales of women’s inner lives against ruined cityscapes. These 13 stories are like perverted fairytales or fragmentary nightmares, full of strange recurring imagery and hazily dystopian setups. Flash fiction-length stories alternate with longer ones that move at a dizzying pace, and the book is roughly half third-person and half first-person – a balance I always appreciate.
“Unstitching,” the two-page opener, introduces the metaphors and gender politics that form the backdrop for Grudova’s odd imagination. One day Greta realizes she can unstitch herself, removing an outer covering to reveal her true identity; “It brought great relief … like undoing one’s brassiere before bedtime or relieving one’s bladder after a long trip.” Her neighbor Maria does the same, but men – including Greta’s husband – find this intimidating, and are jealous because they don’t seem to have a deeper self to uncover. I was tickled by the idea of women having a secret life unshared by men, but had trouble grasping the actual mechanics of the unstitching: “She did not so much resemble a sewing machine as she was the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based. The closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant.” Huh? This is a case where keeping things vague might have been a better strategy.
Sewing machines keep popping up, along with mermaids, dolls, babies, zoos, factories, and old-fashioned or derelict shops. For example, the narrator of “The Mouse Queen” is a clerk in a doll’s house shop, while her husband Peter works in a graveyard. One night he brings home the corpse of an old dwarf woman, which the narrator decides to stow in the abandoned grocery store under their apartment. Um, naturally.
In “Waxy” (full text available on the Granta website) the narrator works at a sewing machine factory and unlawfully acquires a baby by her sub-par Man, Paul. The sexual violence in this one and in “Moth Emporium” is deeply unsettling: even in these off-kilter fictional worlds women’s bodies are considered a threat and pregnancy is never innocuous.
My two favorites were “Agata’s Machine” (full text available at The White Review) and “Notes from a Spider.” The former is perhaps indebted to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” in its picture of obsessive and ultimately self-destructive activity. It features two Eastern European eleven-year-olds: the narrator is bullied, while her friend Agata is an aloof genius. In her attic room Agata keeps what looks like a sewing machine, but pushing its treadle creates flickering images of Pierrot (a clown) or an angel. This one has a chilling ending. The last story, “Notes from a Spider,” is told by a half-man, half-spider with eight legs. He keeps a zoo for vermin and opens – what else? – a sewing machine museum.
I’ve discovered that I have limited tolerance for outlandish tales like these. I’d be intrigued to find one of Grudova’s stories in an anthology, and I might be happy to read the best four or five of these. But because the same images and concepts keep repeating, the book feels twice as long as it needs to be. Ultimately this book was not for me, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to you if you have enjoyed the more fantastical of the feminist short stories by Karen Russell, Alexandra Kleeman and Helen Simpson.
The Doll’s Alphabet was published on February 14th by Fitzcarraldo Editions. With thanks to publicist Nicolette Praça for the review copy.
London-based publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions produces elegantly simple volumes of long-form essays and niche contemporary fiction, with much of the latter appearing in English translation for the first time. I’ve enjoyed a number of Fitzcarraldo books – particularly On Immunity by Eula Biss, The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, and Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich – and even when the topics don’t hold any particular interest for me (as was the case with Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Pretentiousness by Dan Fox), they are still thought-provoking, out-of-the-ordinary discourses on the topic at hand.
Coming up next from Fitzcarraldo (March 22nd) is French author Mathias Enard’s novel Compass, which won the 2015 Prix Goncourt. On one sleepless night in Vienna Franz Ritter, an ailing musicologist, entertains memories of travels in the Middle East and his unrequited love for Sarah. Here’s part of the first run-on paragraph as a preview of the hypnotic style:
We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapour that engendered it, nor of the atoms that still compose it but that, soon, will serve other molecules, other bodies, the clouds weighing heavy over Vienna tonight: over whose nape will this water stream, against what skin, on what pavement, towards what river, and this indistinct face on the glass is mine only for an instant, one of the millions of possible configurations of illusion …
Eowyn Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. If you have read Ivey’s 2012 debut, The Snow Child, you’ll remark once again on her skill in bringing the bleak beauty of Alaska to life on the page and blending magic realism and folktales with a nonetheless realistic view of history.
In March 1885 Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester sets out with a small team – including brash Sergeant Bradley Tillman, melancholy photographer Lieutenant Andrew Pruitt, native guides, and Samuelson, a trapper who serves as a go-between – to navigate a previously unmapped portion of Alaska. Back at Vancouver Barracks he’s left his wife of four months, Sophie. Bold and curious, she intended to travel into Alaska with Allen until she learned she was pregnant. Now she passes the months of her confinement – and raises eyebrows among the military wives – by pursuing her amateur hobbies of birdwatching and photography.
Through alternating passages from journals by Allen and Sophie, Ivey contrasts the big adventures of surveying new territory with the smaller adventures of domestic life. Along their perilous journey Allen and his men encounter many legends and incidents they cannot explain: shape-shifters, like the women who morph into flocks of geese or the shaman who takes the form of a half-lame raven; a baby born out of a tree trunk; and a prehistoric creature that guards a lake. As Allen writes in a letter to Sophie towards the end of his journey:
I can find no means to account for what we have witnessed, except to say that I am no longer certain of the boundaries between man & beast, of the living and & dead. It has been a strange experience indeed. All that I have taken for granted, of what is real & true, has been called into question.
A framing story sets the historical narrative in the context of the present day: Walter Forrester has sent his great-uncle Allen’s letters and journal to a small Alaska museum for safekeeping. Initially the young curator, Joshua Sloan, is annoyed at the unwanted donation and the extra work it creates for him, but gradually – right alongside the novel’s readers – he starts to be sucked into the story the documents reveal. Through their correspondence, Josh and Walt develop a touching friendship despite their differences.
Ivey fits the pieces of her epistolary together in a sophisticated manner and makes you care about each of the characters. Sophie and Pruitt, especially, have traumatic backstories that help you understand their behavior. Sophie reminded me most of Meridian Wallace in Elizabeth J. Church’s The Atomic Weight of Love – both are self-taught scientists with a deep love for birds and a determination to live interesting lives even if others disapprove. The novel also brings to mind Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place in that it skips back and forth in time and intersperses a central narrative with other documents, including an auction catalogue of relevant objects.
I found Sophie’s voice instantly more engaging than Allen’s shorthand-like style, and it took me a while – maybe 60–80 pages – to warm up to the storyline and characters. I would have appreciated an Author’s Note at the end of the book explaining what, if anything, was based on a true story and which documents are authentic. (As it is, I assume that all the characters are fictional but the explorers’ journey is based on the historical record.) Nonetheless, I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
With thanks to Katie Brown at Tinder Press for the free review copy.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – exciting!
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” Through a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, Barnes questions how art can withstand political oppression. Knowing Barnes’s penchant for stylistic experimentation, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as he so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich has a reckoning with Power. The book is full of terrific one-liners (“Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable”), but there are not many memorable scenes to latch on to.
Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (& interview) by Michael Pronko: Pronko’s third collection of essays about his adopted city is an eloquent tribute to a place full of contradictions and wonders. Compared to his earlier collection, Beauty and Chaos, I sense Pronko is now more comfortable in his surroundings, perhaps happier to include himself in ‘we’ rather than looking on passively at ‘them’. For instance – inspired by Japanese women’s perfect outfits – he consciously tries to dress better, and he’s taken to eating ramen and sleeping on a futon, just like a native. The highlight is a set of pieces written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake / tsunami.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie: Veblen, named after the late-nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist, is one of the oddest heroines you’ll ever meet. She thinks squirrels are talking to her and kisses flowers. But McKenzie doesn’t just play Veblen for laughs; she makes her a believable character well aware of her own psychological backstory. I suspect the squirrel material could be a potential turn-off for readers who can’t handle too much whimsy. Over-the-top silly in places, this is nonetheless a serious account of the difficulty of Veblen and Paul, her neurology researcher fiancé, blending their dysfunctional families and different ideologies – which is what marriage is all about.
Weathering by Lucy Wood: This atmospheric debut novel is set in a crumbling house by an English river and stars three generations of women – one of them a ghost. Ada has returned to her childhood home after 13 years to scatter her mother Pearl’s ashes, sort through her belongings, and get the property ready to sell. In a sense, then, this is a haunted house story. Yet Wood introduces the traces of magical realism so subtly that they never feel jolting. Like the river, the novel is fluid, moving between the past and present with ease. The vivid picture of the English countryside and clear-eyed look at family dynamics remind me most of Tessa Hadley (The Past) and Polly Samson (The Kindness).
When We Were Invincible by Jonathan Harnisch: In this short novel, a young man wrestles with depression and Tourette’s syndrome, which together drive him to the point of suicide. A series of dreams and chance meetings, along with the possibility of romance and faith in God, pull him back from the edge. The book successfully introduces philosophical themes and gives a sympathetic picture of mental illness. However, it is weaker at filling in background and providing transitions, and there are many awkward, unlikely lines of dialogue. Recommended to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: The twisty, clever story of a doomed filmmaker – perfect for fans of Hausfrau. Who is Sophie Stark? A New York City-based indie director whose four documentary-style movies are “almost more like life than life itself.” Bisexual and with certain traits of high-functioning autism, Sophie is easily misunderstood. She’s a rebel who doesn’t conform to social niceties. The book is told through five first-person reminiscences from the people closest to her. In this respect the novel’s format recalls Kitchens of the Great Midwest. My favorite sections, though, are the reviews of her films, all by the same critic.
Casualties by Betsy Marro: A powerful, melancholy debut novel about how war affects whole families, not just individual soldiers. As in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which Casualties resembles in tone if not in style, a bereaved mother sets off on a journey. Ruth’s unlikely companion on the road trip east is a Gulf War amputee who appears little more than a conman but genuinely wants to clean up his act so he can reconcile with his teenage daughter. At times the road trip scenario felt a little far-fetched to me, and Casey too obvious a replacement son figure. Yet as both he and Ruth ponder how much they have lost and the small things they can try to put right, they together form a touching picture of the various ways war’s effects can linger.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: “All stories are ghost stories,” Samantha Hunt proclaims in her quirky third novel about the crossover between motherhood and mysticism. In a dual storyline that takes in fundamentalist cults, unlikely mediums and a pregnant woman’s pilgrimage, Hunt asks whether one can ever believe in the unseen. Mr. Splitfoot has the offbeat charm of Scarlett Thomas’s work. While the plot ultimately feels like a bit of a jumble, its vision of unexpected love and loyalty remains compelling. “The End’s always coming,” but it is how one lives in the face of brutality and impending extinction that matters.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett: A debut novel in which an Australian whaler’s daughter looks back at 1908, a catastrophic whaling season but also her first chance at romance. I felt that additional narrators, such as a whaleman or an omniscient voice, would have allowed for more climactic scenes. Still, I found this gently funny, especially the fact that the family’s cow and horse are inseparable and must be together on any outing. There are some great descriptions of whales, too.
Felicity by Mary Oliver: I was disappointed with my first taste of Mary Oliver’s poetry. So many readers praise her work to the skies, and I’ve loved excerpts I’ve read elsewhere. However, I found these to be rather simplistic and clichéd, especially poems’ final lines, e.g. “Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home. / And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.” or “Late, late, but now lovely and lovelier. / And the two of us, together—a part of it.” I’ll definitely try more of her work, but I’ll look out for an older, classic collection.
Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Full of blunt, faux-profound sentences and smutty, two-dimensional characters. Others may rave about it, but this wasn’t for me. I get that it is a satire on female friendship and youth entitlement. But I hated how the main characters get involved in a love triangle, and once they leave college any interest I had in them largely disappeared. Least favorite lines: “Paulina. She’s like Cleopatra, but more squat.” / “She’s more like Humphrey Bogart” and “She craved the zen-ness of being rammed.”
Noah’s Wife by Lindsay Starck: I kept wanting to love this book, but never quite did. It’s more interesting as a set of ideas – a town where it won’t stop raining, a minister losing faith, homeless zoo animals sheltering with ordinary folk – than as an executed plot. My main problem was that the minor characters take over so that you never get to know the title character, who remains nameless. There’s also a ton of platitudes towards the end. It reminded me most of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Not Forgetting the Whale (another cozy environmental dystopia based around biblical allusions).
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume: This sounded like a charmingly offbeat story about a loner and his adopted dog setting off on a journey. As it turns out, this debut is much darker than expected, but what saves it from being unremittingly depressing is the same careful attention to voice you encounter in fellow Irish writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Enright. It’s organized into four sections, with the title’s four verbs as headings. In a novel low on action, the road trip is much the most repetitive section, extending to the language as well. Even so, Baume succeeds in giving a compassionate picture of a character whose mental state comes into question. (Full review in March 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Medium Hero by Korby Lenker: Lenker is an indie musician, and the 27 autobiographical stories in his debut collection are about the everyday challenges of being on the road versus trying to pay the bills. Many feature “Korby” or “Simon” as fictional stand-ins, and recurring locations include his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho and his adopted home of Nashville. As the title suggests, Lenker has no illusions about being famous or out of the ordinary. Most of the time he just tries to be a decent guy, the kind who prays for family members in distress even though he’s not sure he believes in God. Lest that sound too serious, though, there are also stories about peeing his pants and the perils of being a metrosexual.
Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan: Slides down like ice cream. And I say that even though the whole basis for this memoir feels rather thin. Corrigan frames it around five months in the early 1990s when she worked as a nanny for two Australian kids whose mother died of cancer. For a young woman fresh out of college, it was like a trial run for being a mother, and also gave her a new appreciation for everything her own mother had done for her during her Philadelphia Catholic upbringing. If Corrigan’s father was the ‘glitter’ of the family, her mother was the ‘glue’ – holding everything together in the background. This is impressively reconstructed, dialogue and all, from letters, journals and photos.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope: This novel was inspired by the story of the author’s great-great-grandfather, an Irishman who was a patient at Menston Asylum in West Yorkshire from 1909 to 1918. The novel zeroes in on the long, hot summer of 1911, focusing through alternating close third-person chapters on John Mulligan, a new patient named Ella Fay, and Dr. Charles Fuller, who wants to put his mental hospital at the frontline of eugenics research. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as Wake, but I think it cements Anna Hope’s reputation as a solid historical fiction writer. I hope with her next book she’ll move beyond the years around World War I to consider a less-chronicled era.
Life without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber: The Jordanian–American writer reflects on how various food cultures have sustained her through a life that hasn’t always turned out as expected. Three marriages, a move from Portland to Florida, a winding path to motherhood in her forties, and her father’s death from leukemia are some of the main events. Like Sasha Martin’s Life from Scratch, this is more about family and personal history than it is about food (and there are no recipes). Still, food is the stuff of memories, and it is what binds her to two strong characters: her Jordanian father Bud with his stuffed grape leaves, and her maternal grandmother Grace with her frequent baking and the pastries they consumed together in Paris.
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: This fictionalized account of the life of E.M. Forster focuses on the drawn-out composition of A Passage to India, which he began in 1913 but wouldn’t complete and publish until 1924. In between he broke off to write his explicitly homosexual novel Maurice (only published posthumously), spent three years working in Egypt during the war, and served as a secretary to an Indian maharajah. As fictionalized biographies of authors go, I’d rate this somewhere between David Lodge’s A Man of Parts (H.G. Wells) and Colm Tóibín’s superior The Master (Henry James); all three share a heavy focus on the author’s sexuality. “Buggery in the colonies. It wasn’t noble” is one of my favorite random snippets from this novel, and sums up, for me, its slightly prurient aftertaste.