Book Serendipity, Mid-December 2022 to Mid-February 2023
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
My biggest overall coincidence set this time was around Korean culture, especially food:
- A demanding Korean/American mother (“Umma”) in Sea Change by Gina Chung, Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
- In the Chung and Zauner, she has eyebrows tattooed on.
- In the Chung and Sterling, there’s also a mall setting.
- Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin was set in South Korea and mentioned a lot of the same cultural factors and foods. KIMCHI (which I’ve never had) was inescapable in these four books.
And the rest…
- The concept of Satan as “the enemy” in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer, two 2023 memoirs I reviewed for Foreword Reviews.
- A mention of the Newsboys (my favourite Christian rock band when I was a teenager) in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and, of all places, Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (the context: a list of songs with “Born” in the title; theirs is called – you guessed it! – “Born Again”).
- Two Moores in my stack at once: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore.
- A chapter in The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore is called “Fight Night” and I was reading the early pages of Fight Night by Miriam Toews at the same time.
- A story in Birds of America by Lorrie Moore is called “Real Estate” and I was reading Real Estate by Deborah Levy at the same time.
- The Virgil quote “there are tears at the heart of things” and the theme of melancholy link Bittersweet by Susan Cain and The Heart of Things by Richard Holloway.
- A character who stutters in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale.
- (Werther’s) butterscotch candies are mentioned in Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro, and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- A mother who loves going to church in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.
- The metaphor of a girl trapped in a block of marble ready to have her identity carved out in Sea Change by Gina Chung and Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle.
- When I read a short story about a landmine-detecting rat in Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle, I knew it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered that very specific setup. It took some digging, but I found out the other was in Attrib. by Eley Williams.
- Shane McCrae, whose forthcoming memoir Pulling the Chariot of the Sun I was also reading, is a named poetic influence/source in More Sky by Joe Varrick-Carty.
- I’m sure that after the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Door I encountered another poem about a frozen cat … but can’t now find it for the life of me.
- A character named Marnie in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- Cape Verdean immigrants in the Boston area, then and now, in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish.
- Someone swaps green tea for coffee in Bittersweet by Susan Cain and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- A half-French, half-Asian protagonist in a novella translated from the French: A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery and Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.
- A (semi-)historical lesbian couple as a subject of historical fiction in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Gordon.
- A lesbian couple with a ten-year age gap breaks up because the one partner wants a baby and the other does not in My Mother Says by Stine Pilgaard and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- After I specifically read three Frost Fairs books … 18th-century frolics on the frozen Thames were mentioned in The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph.
- As I was reading The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph, I saw him briefly mentioned in How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- From one 139-page book about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often taking in temples) to another: I followed up A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery with How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- Persimmon jam is mentioned in Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin and How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- A brave post-tragedy trip to a mothers and babies group ends abruptly when people are awkward or rude in All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- As I was reading What We Talk about when We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver, I encountered a snippet from his poetry as a chapter epigraph in Bittersweet by Susan Cain.
- Sexologist Havelock Ellis inspired one of the main characters in The New Life by Tom Crewe and is mentioned in passing in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Most Anticipated Releases of 2023
In real life, it can feel like I have little to look forward to. A catch-up holiday gathering and a shortened visit from my sister were over all too soon, and we have yet to book any trips for the summer months. Thankfully, there are always pre-release books to get excited about.
This list of my 20 most anticipated titles covers a bit more than the first half of the year, with the latest publication dates falling in August. I’ve already read 14 releases from 2023 (written up here), and I’m also looking forward to new work from Margaret Atwood, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Angie Cruz, Patrick deWitt, Naoise Dolan, Tessa Hadley, Louisa Hall, Leah Hazard, Christian Kiefer, Max Porter, Tom Rachman, Gretchen Rubin, Will Schwalbe, Jenn Shapland, Abraham Verghese, Bryan Washington, Anne Youngson and more, as well as to trying out various debut authors.
The following are in (UK) release date order, within sections by genre. U.S. details given too/instead if USA-only. Quotes are excerpts from the publisher blurbs, e.g., from Goodreads.
The End of Drum-Time by Hanna Pylväinen [Jan. 24, Henry Holt and Co.] I loved Pylväinen’s 2012 debut, We Sinners. This sounds like a winning combination of The Bell in the Lake and The Mercies. “A richly atmospheric saga that charts the repercussions of a scandalous nineteenth century love affair between a young Sámi reindeer herder in the Arctic Circle and the daughter of the renegade Lutheran minister whose teachings are upending the Sámi way of life.” (Edelweiss download)
Heartstopper, Volume 5 by Alice Oseman [Feb. 2, Hodder Children’s] A repeat from my 2022 Most Anticipated post. Will this finally be the year?? I devoured the first four volumes of this teen comic in 2021. Nick will be getting ready to go off to university, so I guess we’ll see how he leaves things with Charlie and whether their relationship will survive a separation. (No cover art yet.)
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai [Feb. 21, Viking / Feb. 23, Fleet] Makkai has written a couple of stellar novels; this sounds quite different from her usual lit fic but promises Secret History vibes. “A fortysomething podcaster and mother of two, Bodie Kane is content to forget her past [, including] the murder of one of her high school classmates, Thalia Keith. … [But] when she’s invited back to Granby, the elite New England boarding school where she spent four largely miserable years, to teach a course, Bodie finds herself inexorably drawn to the case and its increasingly apparent flaws.” (Proof copy)
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton [March 7, Granta / Farrar, Straus and Giroux] I was lukewarm on The Luminaries (my most popular Goodreads review ever) but fancy trying Catton again – though this sounds like Atwood’s Year of the Flood, redux. “Five years ago, Mira Bunting founded a guerrilla gardening group … Natural disaster has created an opportunity, a sizable farm seemingly abandoned. … Robert Lemoine, the enigmatic American billionaire, has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker. … A gripping psychological thriller … Shakespearean in its wit, drama, and immersion in character.” (NetGalley download)
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld [April 4, Random House / April 6, Doubleday] Sittenfeld is one of my favourite contemporary novelists. “Sally Milz is a sketch writer for The Night Owls, the late-night live comedy show that airs each Saturday. … Enter Noah Brewster, a pop music sensation with a reputation for dating models, who signed on as both host and musical guest for this week’s show. … Sittenfeld explores the neurosis-inducing and heart-fluttering wonder of love, while slyly dissecting the social rituals of romance and gender relations in the modern age.”
The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel [April 18, Riverhead] “Jane is … on the cutting-edge team of a bold project looking to ‘de-extinct’ the woolly mammoth. … As Jane and her daughters ping-pong from the slopes of Siberia to a university in California, from the shores of Iceland to an exotic animal farm in Italy, The Last Animal takes readers on an expansive, bighearted journey that explores the possibility and peril of the human imagination on a changing planet, what it’s like to be a woman and a mother in a field dominated by men, and how a wondrous discovery can best be enjoyed with family. Even teenagers.”
Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal [April 18, Pamela Dorman Books] Kitchens of the Great Midwest is one of my all-time favourite debuts. A repeat from my 2021 Most Anticipated post, hopefully here at last! “A story of a couple from two very different restaurant families in rustic Minnesota, and the legacy of love and tragedy, of hardship and hope, that unites and divides them … full of his signature honest, lovable yet fallible Midwestern characters as they grapple with love, loss, and marriage.” (Edelweiss download)
The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller [April 20, Fig Tree (Penguin) / June 6, Tin House] Fuller is another of my favourite contemporary novelists and never disappoints. “Neffy is a young woman running away from grief and guilt … When she answers the call to volunteer in a controlled vaccine trial, it offers her a way to pay off her many debts … [and] she is introduced to a pioneering and controversial technology which allows her to revisit memories from her life before.” And apparently there’s also an octopus? (NetGalley download)
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor [May 23, Riverhead / June 22, Jonathan Cape (Penguin)] “In the shared and private spaces of Iowa City, a loose circle of lovers and friends encounter, confront, and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery. … These three [main characters] are buffeted by a cast of poets, artists, landlords, meat-packing workers, and mathematicians who populate the cafes, classrooms, and food-service kitchens … [T]he group heads to a cabin to bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.” (Proof copy)
Speak to Me by Paula Cocozza [June 8, Tinder Press] I loved her debut novel, How to Be Human, and this sounds timely. (I have never owned a smartphone.) “When Kurt’s phone rings during sex—and he reaches to pick it up—Susan knows that their marriage has passed the point of no return. … This sense of loss becomes increasingly focused on a cache of handwritten letters, from her first love, Antony, mementoes of a time when devotion seemed to spill out easily onto paper. Increasingly desperate and out of synch with the contemporary world, Susan embarks on a journey of discovery that will reconnect her to her younger self, while simultaneously revealing her future.” (No cover art yet.)
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore [June 20, Faber / Knopf] What a title! I’m keen to read more from Moore after her Birds of America got a 5-star rating from me late last year. “Finn is in the grip of middle-age and on an enforced break from work: it might be that he’s too emotional to teach history now. He is living in an America hurtling headlong into hysteria, after all. High up in a New York City hospice, he sits with his beloved brother Max, who is slipping from one world into the next. But when a phone call summons Finn back to a troubled old flame, a strange journey begins, opening a trapdoor in reality.”
A Manual for How to Love Us by Erin Slaughter [July 5, Harper Collins] “A debut, interlinked collection of stories exploring the primal nature of women’s grief. … Slaughter shatters the stereotype of the soft-spoken, sorrowful woman in distress, queering the domestic and honoring the feral in all of us. … Seamlessly shifting between the speculative and the blindingly real. … Set across oft-overlooked towns in the American South.” Linked short stories are irresistible for me, and I like the idea of a focus on grief.
Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue [Aug. 24, Pan Macmillan / Aug. 29, Little, Brown] Donoghue’s contemporary settings have been a little more successful for me, but she’s still a reliable author whose career I am happy to follow. “Drawing on years of investigation and Anne Lister’s five-million-word secret journal, … the long-buried love story of Eliza Raine, an orphan heiress banished from India to England at age six, and Anne Lister, a brilliant, troublesome tomboy, who meet at the Manor School for young ladies in York in 1805 … Emotionally intense, psychologically compelling, and deeply researched”.
The Year of the Cat: A Love Story by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett [Jan. 19, Tinder Press] “When Rhiannon fell in love with, and eventually married her flatmate, she imagined they might one day move on. … The desire for a baby is never far from the surface, but … after a childhood spent caring for her autistic brother, does she really want to devote herself to motherhood? Moving through the seasons over the course of lockdown, [this] nimbly charts the way a kitten called Mackerel walked into Rhiannon’s home and heart, and taught her to face down her fears and appreciate quite how much love she had to offer.”
Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir by Iliana Regan [Jan. 24, Blackstone] “As Regan explores the ancient landscape of Michigan’s boreal forest, her stories of the land, its creatures, and its dazzling profusion of plant and vegetable life are interspersed with her and Anna’s efforts to make a home and a business of an inn that’s suddenly, as of their first full season there in 2020, empty of guests due to the COVID-19 pandemic. … Along the way she struggles … with her personal and familial legacies of addiction, violence, fear, and obsession—all while she tries to conceive a child that she and her immune-compromised wife hope to raise in their new home.” (Edelweiss download)
Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Exhausted Age by Katherine May [Feb. 28, Riverhead / March 9, Faber] I was a fan of her previous book, Wintering. “After years of pandemic life—parenting while working, battling anxiety about things beyond her control, feeling overwhelmed by the news-cycle and increasingly isolated—Katherine May feels bone-tired, on edge and depleted. Could there be another way to live? One that would allow her to feel less fraught and more connected, more rested and at ease, even as seismic changes unfold on the planet? Craving a different path, May begins to explore the restorative properties of the natural world”. (Proof copy)
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer [April 25, Knopf / May 25, Sceptre] “What do we do with the art of monstrous men? Can we love the work of Roman Polanski and Michael Jackson, Hemingway and Picasso? Should we love it? Does genius deserve special dispensation? Is history an excuse? What makes women artists monstrous? And what should we do with beauty, and with our unruly feelings about it? Dederer explores these questions and our relationships with the artists whose behaviour disrupts our ability to apprehend the work on its own terms. She interrogates her own responses and her own behaviour, and she pushes the fan, and the reader, to do the same.”
Undercurrent: A Cornish Memoir of Poverty, Nature and Resilience by Natasha Carthew [May 25, Hodder Studio] Carthew hangs around the fringes of UK nature writing, mostly considering the plight of the working class. “Carthew grew up in rural poverty in Cornwall, battling limited opportunities, precarious resources, escalating property prices, isolation and a community marked by the ravages of inequality. Her world existed alongside the postcard picture Cornwall … part-memoir, part-investigation, part love-letter to Cornwall. … This is a journey through place, and a story of hope, beauty, and fierce resilience.”
Grief Is for People by Sloane Crosley [June 25, MCD Books] According to Crosley, this is “a five-part book about many kinds of loss.” The press release adds to that: “Telling the interwoven story of a burglary, the suicide of Crosley’s closest friend, and the onset of Covid in New York City, [this] is the first full-length work of nonfiction by a writer best known for her acclaimed, bestselling books of essays.” (No cover art yet.)
Bright Fear by Mary Jean Chan [Aug. 23, Faber] Their debut collection, Flèche, was my top poetry release in 2019. “These piercing poems fearlessly explore intertwined themes of queer identity, multilingualism and postcolonial legacy: interrogating acts of Covid racism, instances of queerphobia and the hegemony of the English language. Questions of acceptance and assimilation are further explored through a family’s evolving dynamics over time, or through the specious jargon of ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’.” (No cover art yet.)
Other lists for more ideas:
What catches your eye here? What other 2023 titles do I need to know about?
Book Serendipity, Mid-October to Mid-December 2022
The last entry in this series for the year. Those of you who join me for Love Your Library, note that I’ll host it on the 19th this month to avoid the holidays. Other than that, I don’t know how many more posts I’ll fit in before my year-end coverage (about six posts of best-of lists and statistics). Maybe I’ll manage a few more backlog reviews and a thematic roundup.
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Tom Swifties (a punning joke involving the way a quotation is attributed) in Savage Tales by Tara Bergin (“We get a lot of writers in here, said the rollercoaster operator lowering the bar”) and one of the stories in Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (“Would you like a soda? he asked spritely”).
- Prince’s androgynous symbol was on the cover of Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby and is mentioned in the opening pages of Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
- Clarence Thomas is mentioned in one story of Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and Encore by May Sarton. (A function of them both dating to the early 1990s!)
- A kerfuffle over a ring belonging to the dead in one story of Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman and Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
- Excellent historical fiction with a 2023 release date in which the amputation of a woman’s leg is a threat or a reality: one story of Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman and The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland.
- More of a real-life coincidence, this one: I was looking into Paradise, Piece by Piece by Molly Peacock, a memoir I already had on my TBR, because of an Instagram post I’d read about books that were influential on a childfree woman. Then, later the same day, my inbox showed that Molly Peacock herself had contacted me through my blog’s contact form, offering a review copy of her latest book!
- Reading nonfiction books titled The Heart of Things (by Richard Holloway) and The Small Heart of Things (by Julian Hoffman) at the same time.
- A woman investigates her husband’s past breakdown for clues to his current mental health in The Fear Index by Robert Harris and Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
- “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is a repeated phrase in Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, as it was in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
- Massive, much-anticipated novel by respected author who doesn’t publish very often, and that changed names along the way: John Irving’s The Last Chairlift (2022) was originally “Darkness as a Bride” (a better title!); Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water (2023) started off as “The Maramon Convention.” I plan to read the Verghese but have decided against the Irving.
- Looting and white flight in New York City in Feral City by Jeremiah Moss and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson.
- Two bereavement memoirs about a loved one’s death from pancreatic cancer: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
- The Owl and the Pussycat of Edward Lear’s poem turn up in an update poem by Margaret Atwood in her collection The Door and in Anna James’s fifth Pages & Co. book, The Treehouse Library.
- Two books in which the author draws security attention for close observation of living things on the ground: Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden and The Lichen Museum by A. Laurie Palmer.
- Seal and human motherhood are compared in Zig-Zag Boy by Tanya Frank and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer, two 2023 memoirs I’m enjoying a lot.
- Mystical lights appear in Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (the Northern Lights, there) and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer.
- St Vitus Dance is mentioned in Zig-Zag Boy by Tanya Frank and Robin by Helen F. Wilson.
- The history of white supremacy as a deliberate project in Oregon was a major element in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, which I read earlier in the year, and has now recurred in The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Door (#MARM)
It’s my fifth year participating in the annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by indomitable Canadian blogger Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years for this challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips; and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her some love?
Like the Beatles, she’s worked in so many different genres and styles that I don’t see how anyone could say they don’t like her – you just haven’t explored her oeuvre deeply enough. Although she’s best known for her fiction, she started off as a poet, with a whole five collections published in the 1960s before her first novel appeared. I’d previously read her Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 and Dearly, my top poetry read of 2020.
The Door (2007) was at that point her first poetry release in 12 years and features a number of the same themes that permeate her novels and nonfiction: memory, writing, ageing, travel and politics. I particularly like the early poems where she reinhabits memories of childhood and early adulthood, often through objects. Such artifacts are “pocketed as pure mementoes / of some once indelible day,” she writes in “Year of the Hen.”
These are followed by a trilogy about the death of the family’s pet cat, Blackie. “We get too sentimental / over dead animals. / We turn maudlin,” she acknowledges in “Mourning for Cats,” yet “Blackie in Antarctica” injects some humour as she remembers how her sister kept the cat’s corpse in the freezer until she could come home to bury it. Also on the lighter side is a long “where are they now?” update for the Owl and the Pussycat.
There are also meta reflections on poetry, slightly menacing observations on the weather (an implacable, fate-like force) and the seasons (autumn = hunting), virtual visits to the Arctic, mild complaints about the elderly not being taken seriously, and thoughts on duty.
Four in a row muse about war – the Vietnam War in particular, I think? “The Last Rational Man” is a sinister standout, depicting a figure who is doomed under Caligula’s reign. Whoever she may have had in mind when she wrote this, it’s just as relevant 15 years later.
In the final, title poem, which appears to be modelled on the Seven Ages of Man, a door is a metaphor for life’s transitions and, ultimately, for death.
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It’s dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings closed.
Apart from a few end rhymes, Atwood relies more on theme than on sonic technique or form. That, I think, makes her poetry accessible to those who are new to or suspicious of verse. Happy birthday, M.A., and thank you for your literary wisdom and innovation! (Little Free Library)
Women’s Prize Shadowing & Men Reading Books by Women
Back in April I announced that my book club was one of six selected to shadow this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist by reading and discussing one of the finalists. Our assigned title was one I’d already read, but I skimmed back through it before our meet-up and enjoyed getting reacquainted with Martha Friel. Here’s our group’s review:
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Can’t Put It Down: 4.5/5
Total = 18.5/20
Our joint highest rating, and one of our best discussions – taking in mental illness and its diagnosis and treatment, marriage, childlessness, alcoholism, sisterhood, creativity, neglect, unreliable narrators and loneliness. For several of us, these issues hit close to home due to personal or family experience. We particularly noted the way that Mason sets up parallels between pairs of characters, accurately reflecting how family dynamics can be replicated in later generations.
Even the minor characters are fully rounded, and although Martha is not always pleasant to spend time with, her voice is impressively rendered. The picture of mental illness from the inside feels authentic, including the fact that Martha uses it as an excuse for her bad behaviour, becoming self-absorbed and not seeing how she is affecting others around her. Our main point of disagreement was about Mason’s decision not to name the mental illness Martha is suffering from. It seemed clear to several of us that it was meant to be bipolar disorder, so we wondered if it was a copout not to identify it as such.
We also thought about the meaning of the term “literary fiction”, and whether this has the qualities of a prize winner and will stand the test of time.
We had to fill out a feedback questionnaire about our experience of shadowing, and most of us sent in individual blurbs in response to the book. Some ended up in the final Reading Agency article. Here was mine:
“This deceptively light novel was a perfect book club selection, eliciting deep discussion about mental illness, family relationships and parenthood. Martha’s (unreliable) narration is a delight, wry and deadpan but also with moments of wrenching emotion. Mason masterfully controls the tone to create something that is witty and poignant all at once.”
Probably the main reason we were chosen for this opportunity is that we have a man – my husband, that is! – who attends regularly. This year the prize has been particularly keen to get more men reading books by women (see more below). So, he was responsible for giving The Male Response to the novel. No pressure, right? Luckily, he enjoyed it just as much as the rest of us. From the cover and blurb, it didn’t necessarily seem like the sort of book that he would pick up to read for himself, but he was fully engaged with the themes of mental illness, family relationships, and the question of whether or not to have children, and was so compelled that he read over half of it in a day.
I’m not sure who I expect to be awarded the Women’s Prize tomorrow. We of West Fields Readers would be delighted if it went to Meg Mason for Sorrow and Bliss, but I’d also be happy with a win for Louise Erdrich or Ruth Ozeki – though I wasn’t taken with their latest works compared with earlier ones I’ve read, they are excellent authors who deserve recognition. I don’t think The Bread the Devil Knead has a chance; I’d be disappointed in a win by Elif Shafak in that I would feel obligated to try her novel – the kind that gives magic realism a bad name – again; and, while I’m a Maggie Shipstead fan in general and admire the ambition of Great Circle, it would be galling for a book I DNFed twice to take the title!
Who are you rooting for/predicting?
I’d like to mock you with that thought,
jeer at the man
who won’t read novels
written by women –
at least not if they’re still alive
~from The Poet by Louisa Reid
Maybe you’ve seen on social media that the Women’s Prize has been canvassing opinion on the books by women that all men should read. This was prompted by some shocking statistics suggesting that even bestselling female authors can only attract a 20% male readership, whereas the best-known male authors are almost equally popular with men and women. They solicited 60 nominations from big names and ran a public poll. I voted for these 10:
Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Possession (A.S. Byatt)
Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)
The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)
The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
Orlando (Virginia Woolf)
*If I could have added to that list, though, my top recommendations for all men to read would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (and probably a different Octavia E. Butler novel from the one nominated).
Three of my selections were among the 10 essential reads announced on the WP website. Their list was headed by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, though of her works I’d be more likely to direct men to Oryx and Crake.
I’ve seen discussions on Twitter about why men don’t read novels (at all, prioritizing nonfiction), or specifically not ones by women. Do you have any theories?
What one book by a woman do you think all men should read?
May Releases: Barrera, Cornwell, Jones, Ruhl
Greetings from the English Channel! I’m putting this quick post together on an outdoor deck as we leave Plymouth harbour on the ferry to Spain. I’ve taken a seasickness pill and am wearing acupressure bracelets, and so far I’m feeling pretty well here taking in a sea breeze; fingers crossed that it will continue to be a smooth voyage.
Have a look at all the lovely May releases above. How I wish that I’d had a chance to read some of them this month! Alas, things have been so busy with our move that I have only cracked one open so far (the Shipstead), but I’m looking forward to reading the rest soon after we get back. For now, I’ll give snippets of early reviews I’ve published elsewhere: two memoirs of pregnancy and early motherhood (the one focusing on postnatal depression), a varied short story collection, and an accessible volume of poetry written during Covid lockdowns.
Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera
(Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney)
In a fragmentary work of autobiography and cultural commentary, the Mexican author investigates pregnancy as both physical reality and liminal state. The linea nigra is a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly. It’s a potent metaphor for the author’s matriarchal line: her grandmother was a doula; her mother is a painter. In short passages that dart between topics, Barrera muses on motherhood, monitors her health, and recounts her dreams. Her son, Silvestre, is born halfway through the book. She gives impressionistic memories of the delivery and chronicles her attempts to write while someone else watches the baby. This is both diary and philosophical appeal—for pregnancy and motherhood to become subjects for serious literature. (See my full review for Foreword.)
Birth Notes: A Memoir of Recovery by Jessica Cornwell
It so happens that May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. Cornwell comes from a deeply literary family; the late John le Carré was her grandfather. Her memoir shimmers with visceral memories of delivering her twin sons in 2018 and the postnatal depression and infections that followed. The details, precise and haunting, twine around a historical collage of words from other writers on motherhood and mental illness, ranging from Margery Kempe to Natalia Ginzburg. Childbirth caused other traumatic experiences from her past to resurface. How to cope? For Cornwell, therapy and writing went hand in hand. This is vivid and resolute, and perfect for readers of Catherine Cho, Sinéad Gleeson and Maggie O’Farrell. (See my full review for Shiny New Books.)
With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.
Antipodes: Stories by Holly Goddard Jones
Jones’s fourth work of fiction contains 11 riveting stories of contemporary life in the American South and Midwest. Some have pandemic settings and others are gently magical; all are true to the anxieties of modern careers, marriage and parenthood. In the title story, the narrator, a harried mother and business school student in Kentucky, seeks to balance the opposing forces of her life and wonders what she might have to sacrifice. The ending elicits a gasp, as does the audacious inconclusiveness of “Exhaust,” a tense tale of a quarreling couple driving through a blizzard. Worry over environmental crises fuels “Ark,” about a pyramid scheme for doomsday preppers. Fans of Nickolas Butler and Lorrie Moore will find much to admire. (Read via Edelweiss. See my full review for Shelf Awareness.)
Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl
Having read Ruhl’s memoir Smile, I recognized the contours of her life and the members of her family. In early poems, cooking and laundry recur, everyday duties that mark time as she tries to write and supervises virtual learning for three children. “Let this all be poetry,” she incants. Part Two contains poems written after George Floyd’s murder, the structure mimicking how abrupt the change in focus was for a nation. Part Three moves into haiku and tanka, culminating in a series of poems reflecting on the seasons. Like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, I would recommend this even to people who think they don’t like poetry. A welcome addition to the body of Covid-19 literature. (Read via Edelweiss. See my full review on Goodreads.)
Two favourite poems:
To love a house
not because it’s perfect but because it shelters you
To love a body
not because it’s perfect but because it shelters you
“Quarantine in August, the overripe month”
I’m tired of summer. I crave fall. Luckily fall comes after summer.
And if I get tired of it all, winter will come, then spring.
Have you read anything from my tempting stack?
What other May releases can you recommend?
Love Your Library, February 2022
We’re now onto the fifth month of the Love Your Library feature. A big thank you to…
- “The Fab Four of Cley,” who run a Little Free Library in their area. They found last month’s post and gave me a link to a bilingual piece they wrote about a book sale they ran at their local church, with the thousands of books they’d amassed. Heavenly!
- Margaret of From Pyrenees to Pennines for her lovely account (with photos!) of a visit to the Central Public Library of Valencia.
- Mary R. of Bibliographic Manifestations for her post on interlibrary loans.
Blogger Laila of Big Reading Life also mentioned ILLs recently. I know some states and provinces are able to offer this service for free. When I lived in Maryland, statewide ILLs were free and I took full advantage of it. It’s how I binged on books by Marcus Borg, Frederick Buechner, Jan Morris, and many others during the year between my Master’s degree and moving back to England permanently. For my thesis research I’d had the University of Leeds’ ILL team get me an obscure Victorian novel on microfiche all the way from Australia. I also cheekily put through a few university ILLs for myself while I worked for King’s College London’s library system. Where I live now in the UK, a public library ILL costs £3 per book, so isn’t worth doing; you might as well find a secondhand copy at that price. I do miss the freedom of knowing that I could borrow (almost) anything I want.
Two funny moments from my recent library volunteering: I found Mrs Dalloway shelved under D, and an M. C. Beaton “Agatha Raisin” mystery shelved under R!
Read from the library recently:
The Jasper & Scruff series by Nicola Colton: Having insisted I don’t like sequels or series … I do sometimes make exceptions, like I did for these early reader books (meant for, I don’t know, maybe ages 7 to 9?). I was drawn by the grey and white cat with a bowtie – that’s Jasper, a dapper fellow who likes the fine things in life and desperately wants to be admitted to the Sophisticats’ club, until he realizes they’re snooty and just plain mean. Whereas Scruff the puppy, though he makes life messy, is loving and fun. I liked the sequels more than the original because they build on each other, bringing back characters from the earlier books for a pirate-themed scavenger hunt, a reality TV-style talent show, and bookshop and diner ventures. There are good lessons about being honest and fair, even if others are cheating to outcompete you, and being yourself instead of putting on airs. I also like the menagerie of mammals: not just dogs and cats, but African megafauna, too.
The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic (originally published in The New York Times): Creative responses to Covid-19, ranging from the prosaic to the fantastical. I appreciated the mix of authors, some in translation and some closer to genre fiction than lit fic. Standouts were by Victor LaValle (NYC apartment neighbours; magic realism), Colm Tóibín (lockdown prompts a man to consider his compatibility with his boyfriend), Karen Russell (time stops during a bus journey), Rivers Solomon (an abused girl and her imprisoned mother get revenge), Matthew Baker (a feuding grandmother and granddaughter find something to agree on), and John Wray (a relationship starts up during quarantine in Barcelona). The best story of all, though, was by Margaret Atwood.
Allegorizings by Jan Morris: Disparate, somewhat frivolous essays written mostly pre-2009, or in 2013, and kept in trust by her publisher for publication as a posthumous collection, so strangely frozen in time. She was old but not super-old; thinking vaguely about death, but not at death’s door. The organizing principle, that everything can be understood on more than one level and so we must think beyond the literal, is interesting but not particularly applicable to the contents. There are mini travel pieces and pen portraits, but I got more out of the explorations of concepts (maturity, nationalism) and universal experiences (being caught picking one’s nose, sneezing).
The Priory by Dorothy Whipple (read for book club): A cosy between-the-wars story, pleasant to read even though some awful things happen, or nearly happen. Like in Downton Abbey and the Cazalet Chronicles, there’s an upstairs/downstairs setup that’s appealing. It was interesting to watch how my sympathies shifted. The Persephone afterword provides useful information about the Welsh house (where Whipple stayed for a month in 1934) and family that inspired the novel. Whipple is a new author for me and I’m sure the rest of her books would be just as enjoyable, but I would only attempt another if it was significantly shorter than this one.
Borrowed since last month:
My latest university library book haul. Paradise by Toni Morrison is to read with my women’s classics book club subgroup in mid-April. Findings is to reread just because Kathleen Jamie is amazing. The other three are in preparation for the 1954 Club coming up in April.
Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’ve co-opted a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.
Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):
- Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
- An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
- Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
- A description of a particular feature of your local library
- A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
- An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
- A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.
If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!
Novellas in November Wrap-Up
Last year, our first of hosting Novellas in November as an official blogger challenge, we had 89 posts by 30 bloggers. This year, Cathy and I have been simply blown away by the level of participation: as of this afternoon, our count is that 49 bloggers have taken part, publishing just over 200 posts and covering over 270 books. We’ve done our best to keep up with the posts, which we’ve each been collecting as links on the opening master post. (Here’s mine.)
Thank you all for being so engaged with #NovNov, including with the buddy reads we tried out for the first time this year. We’re already thinking about changes we might implement for next year.
A special mention goes to Simon of Stuck in a Book for being such a star supporter and managing to review a novella on most days of the month.
Our most reviewed books of the month included new releases (The Fell by Sarah Moss, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, Assembly by Natasha Brown, and The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery), our four buddy reads, and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.
Some authors who were reviewed more than once (highlighting different works) were Margaret Atwood, Henry James, Elizabeth Jolley, Amos Oz, George Simenon, and Muriel Spark.
Of course, novellas are great to read the whole year round and not just in November, but we hope this has been a good excuse to pick up some short books and appreciate how much can be achieved with such a limited number of pages. If we missed any of your coverage, let us know and we will gladly add it in to the master list.
See you next year!
The Blind Assassin Reread for #MARM, and Other Doorstoppers
It’s the fourth annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila at Big Reading Life and I did a buddy reread of The Blind Assassin, which was historically my favourite Atwood novel. I’d picked up a free paperback the last time I was at The Book Thing of Baltimore. Below are some quick thoughts based on what I shared with Laila as I was reading.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Winner of the Booker Prize and Hammett Prize; shortlisted for the Orange Prize
I must have first read this about 13 years ago. The only thing I remembered before I started my reread was that there is a science fiction book-within-the-book. I couldn’t recall anything else about the setup before I read in the blurb about the suspicious circumstances of Laura’s death in 1945. Indeed, the opening line, which deserves to be famous, is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
I always love novels about sisters, and Iris is a terrific narrator. Now a cantankerous elderly woman, she takes us back through her family history: her father’s button factory and his clashes with organizing workers, her mother’s early death, and her enduring relationship with their housekeeper, Reenie. Iris and Laura met a young man named Alex Thomas, a war orphan with radical views, at the factory’s Labour Day picnic, and it was clear early on that Laura was smitten, while Iris went on to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche industrialist.
Interspersed with Iris’s recollections are newspaper articles that give a sense that the Chase family might be cursed, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, Laura’s posthumously published novel. Daring for its time in terms of both explicit content and literary form (e.g., no speech marks), it has a storyline rather similar to 1984, with an upper-crust woman having trysts with a working-class man in his squalid lodgings. During their time snatched together, he also tells her a story inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the time. I was less engaged by the story-within-the-story(-within-the-story) this time around compared to Iris’s current life and flashbacks.
In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that there was a twist coming, and in my impatience to see if I was right I ended up skimming much of the second half of the novel. My hunch was proven correct, but I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to enjoy the journey more a second time around. Overall, this didn’t wow me on a reread, but then again, I am less dazzled by literary “tricks” these days. At the sentence level, however, the writing was fantastic, including descriptions of places, seasons and characters’ psychology. It’s intriguing to think about whether we can ever truly know Laura given Iris’s guardianship of her literary legacy.
If you haven’t read this before, find a time when you can give it your full attention and sink right in. It’s so wise on family secrets and the workings of memory and celebrity, and the weaving in of storylines in preparation for the big reveal is masterful.
Some favourite passages:
“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”
“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
What to read for #MARM next year, I wonder??
In general, I have been struggling mightily with doorstoppers this year. I just don’t seem to have the necessary concentration, so Novellas in November has been a boon. I’ve been battling with Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel for months, and another attempted buddy read of 460 pages has also gone by the wayside. I’ll write a bit more on this for #LoveYourLibrary on Monday, including a couple of recent DNFs. The Blind Assassin was only my third successful doorstopper of the year so far. After The Absolute Book, the other one was:
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
In Towles’ third novel – a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana – brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York. The book features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes. However, Emmett is a dull protagonist, and it’s disappointing that Sally, one of just two main female characters, plays such a minor role. A danger with an episodic narrative is that random events and encounters pile up but don’t do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles’ fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.
See my full review for BookBrowse; see also my related article on Studebaker cars.
With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.
Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?
Talking to the Dead x 2: Helen Dunmore and Elaine Feinstein
My fourth title-based dual review post this year (after Ex Libris, The Still Point and How Not to Be Afraid), with Betty vs. Bettyville to come in December if I can manage them both. Today I have an early Helen Dunmore novel about the secrets binding a pair of sisters and an Elaine Feinstein poetry collection written after the loss of her husband. Their shared title seemed appropriate as Halloween approaches. Both:
Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)
Nina, a photographer, has travelled to stay with her sister in Sussex after the birth of Isabel’s first child, Antony. A house full of visitors, surrounded by an unruly garden, is perfect for concealment. A current secret trades off with one from deep in the sisters’ childhood: their baby brother Colin’s death, which they remember differently. Antony and Colin function like doubles, with the sisters in subtle competition for ownership of the past and present. This was a delicious read: as close as literary fiction gets to a psychological thriller, dripping with sultry summer atmosphere and the symbols of aphrodisiac foods and blowsy flowers. From the novel’s title and opening pages, you have an inkling of what’s to come, but it still hits hard when it does. Impossible to say more about the plot without spoiling it, so just know that it’s a suspenseful story of sisters with Tessa Hadley, Maggie O’Farrell and Polly Samson vibes. I hadn’t much enjoyed my first taste of Dunmore’s fiction (Exposure), but I’m very glad that Susan’s enthusiasm spurred me to pick this up. (Secondhand purchase, Honesty bookshop outside the Castle, Hay-on-Wye)
Talking to the Dead by Elaine Feinstein (2007)
Much like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, my top poetry release of last year, this is a tender and playful response to a beloved spouse’s death. The short verses are in stanzas and incorporate the occasional end rhyme and spot of alliteration as Feinstein marshals images and memories to recreate her husband’s funeral and moments from their marriage and travels beforehand and her widowhood afterwards – including moving out of their shared home. The poems flow so easily and beautifully from one to another; I’d happily read much more from Feinstein. This was her 13th poetry collection; before her death in 2019, she also wrote many novels, stories, biographies and translations. I’ll leave you with a poem suitable for the run-up to the Day of the Dead. (Secondhand purchase, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)