Today marks 189 years since poet Christina Rossetti’s birth in 1830. You could hardly find better reading for Advent than poet–priest Rachel Mann’s new seasonal devotional, In the Bleak Midwinter, which journeys through Advent and the 12 days of Christmas via short essays on about 40 Rossetti poems.
If your mental picture of Rossetti’s work is, like mine was, limited to twee repetition (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow,” as the title carol from 1872 goes), you’ll gain a new appreciation after reading this. Yes, Rossetti’s poetry may strike today’s readers as sentimental, with a bit too much rhyming and overt religion, but it is important to understand it as a product of the Victorian era.
Mann gives equal focus to Rossetti’s techniques and themes. Repetition is indeed one of her main tools, used “to build intensity and rhythm,” and some of her poems are psalm-like in their diction and emotion. I had no idea that Rossetti had written so much – and so much that’s specific to the Christmas season. She has multiple poems entitled “Advent” and “A Christmas Carol” (the technical title of “In the Bleak Midwinter”) or variations thereon.
The book’s commentary spins out the many potential metaphorical connotations of Advent: anticipation, hope, suffering, beginnings versus endings. Mann notes that Rossetti often linked Advent and apocalypse as times of change and preparation. Even as Christians await the birth of Christ, the poet seems to say, they should keep the end of all things in mind. Thus, some of the poems include surprisingly dark or premonitory language:
The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him. (from “Advent,” 1858)
Death is better far than birth,
You shall turn again to earth. (from “For Advent”)
Along with that note of memento mori, Mann suggests other hidden elements of Rossetti’s poetry, like desire (as in the sensual vocabulary of “Goblin Market”) and teasing mystery (“Winter: My Secret,” which reminded me of Emily Dickinson). Not all of her work is devotional or sweet; those who feel overwhelmed or depressed at Christmastime will also find lines that resonate for them here.
Mann helped me to notice Rossetti’s sense of “divine time” that moves in cycles. She also makes a strong case for reading Rossetti to understand how we envision Christmas even now: “In some ways, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ offers the acme of our European cultural representations of this season.”
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
For December I’m reading Do Nothing, the Advent booklet Stephen Cottrell (now the Bishop of Chelmsford; formerly Bishop of Reading) wrote in 2008 about a minimalist, low-stress approach to the holidays. I have to say, it’s inspiring me to cut way back on card-sending and gift-giving this year.
A few seasonal snippets spotted in my recent reading:
“December darkens and darkens, and the streets sprout forth their Christmas tinsel, and the Salvation Army brass band sings hymns and jingles its bells and stirs up its cauldron of money, and loneliness blows in the snowflurries”
(from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood)
“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”
(from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot)
A week to Christmas, cards of snow and holly,
Gimcracks in the shops,
Wishes and memories wrapped in tissue paper,
Trinkets, gadgets and lollipops
And as if through coloured glasses
We remember our childhood’s thrill
… And the feeling that Christmas Day
Was a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus
But where we can never stay.
(from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice)
I’m always on the lookout for books that seem to fit the season. Here are the piles I’ve amassed for winter (Early Riser imagines a human hibernation system for the winters), Christmas and snow. I’ll dip into these over the next couple of months. I plan to get more “winter,” “snow” and “ice” titles out from the library. Plus I have this review book (at left), newly in paperback, to start soon.
Have you read any Advent or wintry books recently?
For this second annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink, I chose two of her works of fiction pretty much at random. The Robber Bride, one of her last few major novels that I hadn’t yet read, and Moral Disorder, a linked short story collection I’d not heard of before, both came my way for free and became my 19th and 20th Atwood books overall. Women’s fulfillment, especially the question of having children or not, and the threat of suicide are two themes that connect the two despite the 13 years between them.
The Robber Bride (1993)
Zenia is dead, to begin with. Or is she? Five years after her funeral, as Tony, Roz and Charis, the university frenemies from whom she stole lovers and money, are eating lunch at The Toxique, Zenia comes back. Much of the book delves back into the Toronto set’s history, with Tony seeming to get the most space and sympathy – she’s a lot like Nell (see below), so probably the most autobiographical character here, and the one I warmed to the most. Tony’s mother left and her father committed suicide, so she’s always been an unusual loner with a rich inner life, speaking and writing backwards (like Adah in The Poisonwood Bible) and becoming obsessed with battle logistics. Now, as a professor of history at her alma mater, she has a good reason to indulge that geeky hobby of keeping model battlefields in the basement.
I found this quite slow, especially through the middle stretch, such that its nearly 500 pages of small type often felt interminable. It didn’t help that I developed very little interest in Roz and Charis. The setup is based on a gender-reversed version of the fairy tale “The Robber Bridegroom,” about a handsome man who lures women into the woods and eats them. Zenia is the (almost literal) femme fatale: “Brilliant, and also fearsome. Wolfish, feral, beyond the pale.” The topic of toxic friendship ties in with Cat’s Eye, and the examination of gender roles feels like it’s edging towards something more radical: when late on a minor character comes out, Roz thinks that for the next generation “the fences once so firmly in place around the gender corrals are just a bunch of rusty old wire.”
A favorite passage:
“Very beautiful people have that effect, [Tony] thinks: they obliterate you. In the presence of Zenia she feels more than small and absurd: she feels non-existent.”
Moral Disorder (2006)
The title came from Atwood’s late partner, Graeme Gibson, who stopped writing novels in 1996 and gave her permission to reuse the name of his work in progress. It suggests that all is not quite as it should be. Then again, morality is subjective. Though her parents disapprove of Nell setting up a household with Tig, who is still married to Oona, the mother of his children, theirs ends up being a stable and traditional relationship; nothing salacious about it.
The first five and last two stories are in the first person, while a set of four in the middle is in the third person – including my favorites, “White Horse” and “The Entities,” two knockout stand-alones. Nell and Tig retreat to a farm for this segment, and Nell has to deal with her sister’s mental illness and her assumption that Tig doesn’t want to have more children. I also liked “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” in which Nell becomes a big sister at age 12. There are a few nothing-y stories, though, and I struggled to see this as having the main character all the way through – but that is probably part of the point: We have so many experiences, and change so much, in the course of a life that we feel we’ve become different people. This is about the memories and connections that last even as the externals alter beyond recognition.
Two favorite passages:
“Maybe she would grow cunning, up here on the farm. Maybe she would absorb some of the darkness, which might not be darkness at all but only knowledge. She would turn into a woman others came to for advice. She would be called in emergencies. She would roll up her sleeves and dispense with sentimentality, and do whatever blood-soaked, bad-smelling thing had to be done. She would become adept with axes.”
“All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives, that blood. I can tell about it or I can bury it. In the end, we’ll all become stories. Or else we’ll become entities. Maybe it’s the same.”
Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books recently?
Which two should I earmark for next year? (I reckon The Testaments and Stone Mattress)
Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s shadow panelists, a couple of whom are blogging friends (one I’ve met IRL), to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to attending the prize ceremony at the London Library on December 5th.
I happened to have already read two of the shortlisted titles, the poetry collection The Perseveranceby Raymond Antrobus and the debut novel Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, which was one of my specific wishes/predictions. The kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a short story collection and another debut novel, for blog reviews so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield (2019)
These nine short stories are steeped in myth and magic, but often have a realistic shell. Only gradually do the fantastical or dystopian elements emerge, with the final paragraph delivering a delicious surprise. For instance, the narrator of “Mantis” attends a Catholic girls’ school and is caught up in a typical cycle of self-loathing and obsessing over boys. It’s only at the very end that we realize her extreme skin condition is actually a metamorphosis that enables her to protect herself. The settings are split between the city and the seaside; the perspective is divided almost perfectly down the middle between the first and third person. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics, as in “The Collectables,” in which a PhD student starts amassing body parts she could only have acquired via grave-robbing.
Two favorites for me were “Formerly Feral,” in which a 13-year-old girl acquires a wolf as a stepsister and increasingly starts to resemble her; and the final, title story, a post-apocalyptic one in which a man and a pregnant woman are alone in a fishing boat, floating above a drowned world and living as if outside of time. This one is really rather terrifying. I also liked “Cassandra After,” in which a dead girlfriend comes back – it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s TheRobber Bride, which I’m currently reading for #MARM. “Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax,” about a girl group experiencing Beatles-level fandom on a tour of the UK, felt like the odd one out to me in this collection.
Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work: “Jenny had taken to poltergeisting round the house”; “skin like fork-clawed cottage cheese,” “the lobster shells gleam a slick vermilion” and “The sky is gory with stars.” There’s no shortage of feminist fantasy stories out there nowadays – Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado and Karen Russell are just a few others working in this vein – but the writing in Salt Slow really grabbed me even when the plots didn’t. I’ll be following Armfield’s career with interest.
Testament by Kim Sherwood (2018)
Eva Butler is a 24-year-old MA student specializing in documentary filmmaking. She is a live-in carer for her grandfather, the painter Joseph Silk (real name: József Zyyad), in his Fitzroy Park home. When Silk dies early on in the book, she realizes that she knows next to nothing about his past in Hungary. Learning that he wrote a testament about his Second World War experiences for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, she goes at once to read it and is distressed at what she finds. With the help of Felix, the museum’s curator, who did his PhD on Silk’s work, she travels to Budapest to track down the truth about her family.
Sherwood alternates between Eva’s quest and a recreation of József’s time in wartorn Europe. Cleverly, she renders the past sections more immediate by writing them in the present tense, whereas Eva’s first-person narrative is in the past tense. Although József escaped the worst of the Holocaust by being sentenced to forced labor instead of going to a concentration camp, his brother László and their friend Zuzka were in Theresienstadt, so readers get a more complete picture of the Jewish experience at the time. All three wind up in the Lake District after the war, rebuilding their lives and making decisions that will affect future generations.
It’s almost impossible to write anything new about the Holocaust these days, and overfamiliarity was certainly a roadblock for me here. I was especially reminded of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, what with its focus on the Hungarian Jewish experience. However, I did appreciate the way Sherwood draws on her family history – her grandmother is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor – to consider how trauma still affects the second and third generation. This certainly doesn’t feel like a debut novel. It’s highly readable, and the emotional power of the story cannot be denied. The Young Writer of the Year Award is great for highlighting books that risk being overlooked: in a year dominated by The Testaments, poor Testament was otherwise likely to sink without notice.
Note: “Testament” is also the title of the poem written by Sherwood’s great-grandfather that she recited at her grandfather’s funeral – just as Eva does in the novel. It opens this Telegraph essay (paywalled, but reprinted in the paperback of Testament) that Sherwood wrote about her family history.
General thoughts and predictions:
Any of these books would be a worthy winner. However, as Raymond Antrobus has already won this year’s £30,000 Rathbones Folio Prize as well as the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Award from the Poetry Society, The Perseverance has had sufficient recognition – plus it’s a woman’s turn. Testament is accomplished, and likely to hold the widest appeal, but it strikes me as the safe choice. Salt Slow would be an edgier selection, and feels quite timely and fresh. But Stubborn Archivist has stuck with me since I reviewed it in March. I called it “Knausgaard for the Sally Rooney generation” and wrote that “the last book to have struck me as truly ‘novel’ in the same way was Lincoln in the Bardo.” From a glance at the shadow panel’s reviews thus far, I fear it may prove too divisive for them, though.
Based on my gut instincts and a bit of canny thinking about the shadow panelists and judges, here are my predictions:
What they will pick: Testament [but they might surprise me and go with Salt Slow or Stubborn Archivist]
What they should pick: Salt Slow
Official Judging Panel:
What they will pick: Stubborn Archivist [but they might surprise me and go with Salt Slow]
What they should pick: Stubborn Archivist
I understand that the shadow panel is meeting today for their in-person deliberations. I wish them luck! Their pick will be announced on the 28th. I’ll be intrigued to see which book they select, and how it compares with the official winner on December 5th.
Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?
This is my fourth year joining Laura Frey and others in reading mostly novellas in November. Last year Laura put together a history of the challenge (here); it has had various incarnations but has no particular host or rules. Join us if you like! (#NovNov and #NovellasinNovember) The definition of a novella is loose – it’s based more on the word count than the number of pages – so it’s up to you what you’d like to classify as one. I generally limit myself to books of 150 pages or fewer, though I might go as high as 180-some if there aren’t that many words on a page. Some, including Laura and Susan, would be as generous as 200.
Atwoods and fiction stack.
Collections and back-ups.
I’ve trawled my shelves for fiction and nonfiction stacks to select from, as well as a few volumes that include several novellas (I’d plan on reading at least the first one) and some slightly longer novels (150–190 pages) for backups. [From the N. West volume, I just have the 52-page novella The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his debut, to read. The Tangye book with the faded cover is Lama.] Also available on my Kindle are The Therapist by Nial Giacomelli*, Record of a Night too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami, Childhood: Two Novellas by Gerard Reve, and Milton in Purgatory by Edward Vass* (both *Fairlight Moderns Novellas, as is Atlantic Winds by William Prendiville).
Other November reading plans…
Margaret Atwood Reading Month
This is the second year of #MARM, hosted by Canadian bloggers extraordinaires Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink. This year they’re having a special The Handmaid’s Tale/The Testaments theme, but even if you’re avoiding the sequel, join us in reading one or more Atwood works of your choice. She has so much to choose from! Last year I read The Edible Woman and Surfacing. This year I’ve earmarked copies of the novel The Robber Bride (1993) and Moral Disorder (2006), a linked short story collection, both of which I got for free – the former from the free bookshop where I volunteer, and the latter from a neighbor who was giving it away.
I don’t usually participate in this challenge because nonfiction makes up at least 40% of my reading anyway, but last year I enjoyed putting together some fiction and nonfiction pairings and ‘being the expert’ on women’s religious memoirs, a subgenre I have a couple of books to add to this year. So I will probably end up doing at least one post. The full schedule is here.
Young Writer of the Year Award
Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award was a highlight of 2017 for me. I was sad to not be able to attend any of the events last year. I’m excited for this year’s shadow panelists, a couple of whom are blogging friends (one I’ve met IRL), and I look forward to following along with the nominated books and attending the prize ceremony at the London Library on December 5th.
With any luck I will already have read at least one or two books from the shortlist, which is to be announced on November 3rd. I have my fingers crossed for Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Daisy Johnson, Elizabeth Macneal, Stephen Rutt and Lara Williams; I expect we may also see repeat appearances from one of the poets recognized by the Forward Prizes and Guy Gunaratne, the winner of the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize.
Any reading plans for November? Will you be joining in with novellas, Margaret Atwood’s books or Nonfiction November?
The Booker Prize was announced last night in a live feed I watched over a glass of wine between my yoga class and birthday dessert. As chair of judges Peter Florence recapped each book, he said the most, and most effusively, about Ducks, Newburyport, so I thought Ellmann had it in the bag. Then, when it became clear there would be joint winners, I thought maybe Ellmann and Evaristo would share the Prize. But that’s not how things panned out…
I don’t have much to add to the conversation after yesterday’s Twitter storm; I remain entirely uninterested in reading The Testaments, an unnecessary sequel and, by all accounts, subpar Atwood work that didn’t need more buzz than it’s already attracted. Atwood won the Booker in 2000 for a brilliant novel, The Blind Assassin, one of my absolute favorites, and while she’s enough of a legend to be among the few authors to have won the Prize twice (along with Peter Carey, J.M. Coetzee and Hilary Mantel), maybe not for this book?
I am, however, delighted for Evaristo. If you haven’t yet picked up Girl, Woman, Other, I’d urge you to give it a try. I’m 1/3 into it now. Through a giveaway on Eric’s blog I won a copy plus two tickets to see Evaristo in conversation with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (author of Manchester Happened, which I’ll be covering for the Ake Book Festival blog tour later this month) at the London Literature Festival on the 20th, but I couldn’t wait until I pick up my copy from the Southbank Centre so have been reading a library copy in the meantime.
You probably know that Girl, Woman, Other is a linked short story collection about 12 characters (mostly Black women) navigating twentieth-century and contemporary Britain, balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. I’ve been surprised by the structure and style, however. It’s in four long chapters, each divided between three characters. These are almost like musical suites, with the three stories interlocking (I’m not in far enough to know if there is overlap between the suites). The prose is mostly uncapitalized and unpunctuated, with only a handful of full stops closing sections. This makes it more like poetry: a wry, radical stream of consciousness. I’d compare it, content-wise, to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer.
This is the third tie in Booker history – though after a 1992 tie the rules were changed so that it shouldn’t have happened again. As Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, puts it, “The thinking was it just doesn’t work—it sort of detracts attention from both, rather than drawing attention to either.” So while it’s wonderful that Evaristo is the first Black woman to win the Booker, there is something almost sinister about the fact that, due to the tie, she gets just £25,000 in prize money rather than the full £50,000. However, both she and Atwood were extremely graceful in their acceptance speeches (Atwood sheepish and apologetic at the same time), so I will try to be as well. It’s a turn-up for the books, anyway!
Yesterday was also my 36th birthday. A dismally wet Monday may not be ideal for a birthday, but I’d had the whole previous weekend for celebrating so can’t really complain. Saturday was a very Newbury day of volunteer gardening in the drizzle; an excellent lunch at Henry & Joe’s, a reasonably new restaurant with small plates of seasonal food, exquisitely presented – on the way to Michelin star quality; an early evening showing of Downton Abbey in the intimate upstairs theatre at the Corn Exchange; and a wander around the Fire Garden art installation, which features giant candles and automata. On Sunday I helped out at a fun and chaotic pet blessing service at church, followed by cake, presents and a homemade feast.
Weimaraner eyes parrot
‘The dog ate my service sheet…’
One of the best parts of preparing for my birthday is finding recipes for my husband to make for me. This year I picked a Chocolate Orange Truffle Cake from Perfect Chocolate Desserts (which includes photographs of every step), a veganized Chicken Jackfruit Mole with Red Cabbage Slaw and flatbreads from Pip & Nut: The Nut Butter Cookbook, and A Rum of One’s Own (aka hot buttered rum) from the Tequila Mockingbird literary cocktails book. All amazingly rich and delicious; by nightcap time, I could only manage a sip or two of the rum.
I gave myself the Monday off work (the nice thing about being a freelancer, even if I don’t get paid) and spent much of it reading in comfy spots around the house and looking out at the rain. I also picked out a pile of books I’ve been meaning to reread, but only got around to starting the Thomas. I hadn’t read it since it came out in 2006 yet I remember it so well, even particular phrasing. It was one of the first memoirs to make a really big impression on me.
Birthday reading stack
Imminent rereading stack
It won’t surprise you that my wish list contained only books this year, so with the exception of a mug mat, puffin socks and notecards, a couple of CDs, some chocolate and the perfect pin badge (“Bookish”), I received 14 books as presents: two novels and the rest nonfiction, mostly memoirs. I get much of my fiction from the library or from NetGalley/Edelweiss (particularly the American releases I can’t find elsewhere), but there are lots of nonfiction authors whose work I can’t find other than secondhand. I know where I’ll start with this pile: the Houston and McCracken are 2019 releases, so I want to read them before the end of the year in case they make a Best Of list. After that, I’ll let whimsy be my guide. A great haul!
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’s10 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.
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?
Approaching the home straight with these two: another novel that happens to have an animal in the title, and a pleasant work of modern nature writing set in an English village. My rating for both:
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (2002)
I’ve meant to read more by Lawson ever since I reviewed her latest book, Road Ends, for Nudge in May 2015. All three of her novels draw on the same fictional setting: Struan, Ontario. Lawson grew up in a similar Canadian farming community before moving to England in the late 1960s. After an invitation arrives for her nephew’s birthday party, narrator Kate Morrison looks 20 years into the past to remember the climactic events of the year that she was seven. When she and her siblings were suddenly orphaned, her teenage brothers, Luke and Matt, had to cobble together local employment that allowed them to look after their little sisters at home. With the help of relatives and neighbors, they kept their family of four together. All along, though, their lives were becoming increasingly entwined with those of the Pyes, a troubled local farming family.
Matt inspired Kate’s love of pond life – she’s now an assistant professor of invertebrate ecology – but never got to go to college himself. Theirs was a family that prized schooling above all else (legend has it that Great-Grandmother installed a book rest on her spinning wheel so she could read while her hands were busy*) and eschewed emotion. “It was the Eleventh Commandment,” Kate recalls: “Thou Shalt Not Emote.”
This is a slow burner for sure, but it’s a winning picture of a family that stuck together despite the odds, as well as an appeal to recognize that emotional intelligence is just as important as book learning. The novel reminded me a lot of Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and The Girls by Lori Lansens, and I’d also recommend it to readers of Elizabeth Hay and Jane Urquhart.
*Delightfully, this detail was autobiographical for Lawson.
Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village by Stephen Moss (2011)
England doesn’t have any hummingbirds, but it does have hummingbird hawkmoths, which explains the title. In the tradition of Gilbert White, Moss writes a month-by-month tribute to what he regularly sees on his home turf of Mark, Somerset. As I did with Mark Cocker’s Claxton, I picked up the book partway – at the month in which I started reading it – and when I reached the end, returned to the beginning and read up to my starting point. Controversial, I know, but that July to June timeline worked fine: it gave me familiar glimpses of what’s going on with English nature now, followed by an accelerated preview of what I have to look forward to in the coming months.
Moss is primarily a birder, so he focuses on bird life, but also notes what’s happening with weather, trees, fungi, and so on. In the central and probably best chapter, on June, he maximizes wildlife-watching opportunities: going eel fishing, running a moth trap, listening for bats, and looking out for unfamiliar plants. My minor annoyances with the book were the too-frequent references to “the parish,” which makes the book’s concerns seem parochial rather than microcosmic, and the common use of semicolons where commas and dashes would be preferable. But if you’re fond of modern nature writing, and have some familiarity with (or at least interest in) the English countryside, I highly recommend this as a peaceful, observant read. Plus, Harry Brockway’s black-and-white engravings heading each chapter are exquisite.
“Being in one place is also the best way to understand the passing of the seasons: not the great shifts between winter and spring, summer and autumn, which we all notice; but the tiny, subtle changes that occur almost imperceptibly, from week to week, and day to day, throughout the year.”
“For me, one of the greatest pleasures of living in the English countryside is the way we ourselves become part of the natural cycle of the seasons.”