My Patchy Experience with Book Clubs
I know that a number of you have long-term, faithful book clubs. Boy, am I envious! You might find it surprising that I’ve only ever been in one traditional book club, and it wasn’t a resounding success. Partway through my time working for King’s College, London, an acquaintance from another library branch started the club. A group of five to eight of us from Library Services aimed to meet after work one evening a month at a Southbank venue or a staff room to discuss our latest pick. By poring over old e-mails and my Goodreads library, I’ve managed to remember 10 of the books we read between November 2011 and June 2013:
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick [classic science fiction]
- The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott [Canadian historical fiction]
- A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon [contemporary fiction]
- The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith [classic suspense]
- The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox [bizarre historical fiction/magic realism]
- What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn [contemporary fiction]
- Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger [classic short fiction]
- The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar [graphic novel in translation]
- Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith [an update of Greek myth]
- Angel, Elizabeth Taylor [an obscure English classic]
That may well be the complete list. Although I was a member for 20 months until I quit to go freelance, we often only managed to meet every other month because we couldn’t find a mutually convenient free evening or no one had read the book in time. I was consistently frustrated that – even when our selections were only about 200 pages long – I was often one of the only people to have read the whole book.
Overall, the quality of books we chose struck me as mediocre: I rated half of these books 2 stars, and the rest 3 stars. (I think I was a harsher rater then, but it’s not a good sign, is it?) Perhaps this is part of the inevitable compromising that goes with book clubs, though: You humor other people in their choices and hope they’ll be kind about yours? My suggestion, for the record, was the pretty dismal Little Shadows, for which I got a free set of book club copies to review for Booktime magazine. But I also voted in favor of most of the above list.
Looking back, I am at least impressed by how varied our selections were. People were interested in trying out different genres, so we ranged from historical fiction to sci-fi, and even managed a graphic novel. But when we did get together for discussion there was far too much gossipy chat about work, and when we finally got around to the book itself the examination rarely went deeper than “I liked it” or “I hated all the characters.”
If it was profound analysis I was after, I got that during the years I volunteered at Greenbelt, an annual summer arts festival with a progressive Christian slant. I eagerly read the eclectic set of three books the literature coordinator chose for book club meetings in 2010 – Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – and then as a literature volunteer for the next three years I read and prepared copious notes and questions about our festival “Big Read.” We did Exile by Richard North Patterson in 2011, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett in 2012 and So Many Ways to Begin by Chris Beckett in 2013, and each time I offered to chair the book club meetings.
Unfortunately, due at least in part to logistical considerations, these were run in the way many festival events are: a panel of two to five talking heads with microphones was at the front of the tent, sometimes on a raised dais, while the audience of whatever size sat towards the back. This created a disconnect between the “experts” and the participants, and with the exception of the McGregor meeting I don’t recall much audience input. I’ve mostly blanked out the events – as I tend to for anything that entails public speaking and nervous preparation for something you can’t control – but I was pleased to be involved and I should probably make more of this on my CV. It wasn’t your average book club setting, that’s for sure.
In recent years the closest thing I’ve had to a book club has been online buddy reading. The shadow panels for the Wellcome Book Prize and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award fall into this category, as do online readalongs I’ve done for several Iris Murdoch novels and for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity with various female family members. A few of us book bloggers chatted about Andrea Levy’s Small Island in an online document earlier this year, and my mom and I e-mailed back and forth while reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in May. I’m also doing my last three of the #20BooksofSummer as online buddy reads, checking in occasionally on Twitter.
Of course, there are some inherent limitations to this kind of discussion – people read at different paces and don’t want to spoil the plot for others, and at some point the back-and-forth fizzles out – but it’s always been easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing, so I likely feel more comfortable contributing than I might in an in-person meeting.
This is all context for my decision to join my neighborhood book club next month. The club arose some months back out of our community’s Facebook group, a helpful resource run by a go-getting lady a few doors down from us. So far it’s turning out to be a small group of thirty- and fortysomething women who alternate meetings at each other’s houses, and the name they’ve chosen gives an idea of the tone: “Books, Booze and Banter.”
I made the mistake of not getting involved right at the start; I wanted to hang back and see what kind of books they’d choose. This means I wasn’t part of the early process of putting titles in a hat, so I’ve looked on snobbishly for several months as they lurched between crime and women’s fiction, genres I generally avoid. (Still, there were actually a couple books I might have joined them for had I not been in America and had they been readily available at the public library.) For many people a book club selection will be the only book they get through that month, so I can understand how they’d want it to be something ‘readable’ that they’d be happy to pick up anyway. Even though statistically I read 27 books a month, I’m still jealously protective of my reading time; I want everything I read to be worthwhile.
So for September I managed to steer the group away from a poorly received historical novel of over 400 pages and the new Joël Dicker and onto Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, which the bookstore chain Waterstones has been promoting heavily as one of their books of the month. I already had a charity shop copy in hand and the others liked the sound of it, so we’re all set for September 12th! Future months’ literary fiction choices look promising, too, so provided I enjoy the discussion and the camaraderie I plan to stick with it: a backlist Pat Barker novel I’ve not read, and Kirsty Logan and Jonathan Coe novels I’ve read before and won’t reread but will remind myself about briefly before the meetings.
I’m out of practice with this book club thing. My mother tells me that I have a lot to contribute but that I must also be open to what I’ll learn from other people – even if I don’t expect to. So I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert. In fact, I probably won’t even mention that I’m a freelance book reviewer and book blogger. Mostly I’m hoping to find some friendly faces around the neighborhood, because even though we’ve lived here just over two years I still only know a handful of names and keep myself to myself as I work from home. Even if I have to read books I wouldn’t normally, it’ll be worth it to meet more people.
What has your experience with book clubs (in person and online) been?
Blog Tour: The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse
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.
Four Books for World Kidney Day
Today, March 9th, is World Kidney Day. “The kidneys are like the Rodney Dangerfield of vital organs—they get no popular respect,” Vanessa Grubbs (whose memoir I discuss below) wryly comments. Chances are you rarely have occasion to think about your kidneys. But I’m honoring them with a reading list because several years ago I was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a degenerative condition that runs in my family. My maternal grandmother had it – we’ve never definitively traced it further back than her – and four of her six children have it, too. (If you took a high school genetics class, you might remember that with an autosomal dominant condition offspring have a 50% chance of inheriting the gene for the disease.) A few cousins of my generation also have PKD, and starting with my mom we’ve had a few successful kidney transplants in the family so far.
I must mention the excellent work done by the PKD Foundation in the States and the PKD Charity here in the UK. Both are a great support and source of information for me and my wider family.
The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz
As soon as I read Melissa’s review at The Book Binder’s Daughter, I knew I had to get this one. “The Plimsoll line” is a maritime term indicating how low a cargo-laden ship can sit in the water without sinking; here it’s used metaphorically to ask just how much one man can take. Gabriel Ariz is a 52-year-old art professor who lives not far from the city yet surrounded by oak woods. He’s divorced from Ana, who’s pressuring him to sell the house, and their young adult daughter Laura died a few years ago in a car accident. Now this pack-a-day smoker who gets drunk with his brother, traveling photographer Óscar, learns that he has end-stage renal disease and his life will have to change. On indefinite leave from work, he attends a dialysis clinic several times a week and joins the organ transplant list.
At times this was a bit overwritten for my tastes – some paragraphs stretch to several pages, and I’ve had to look up words, including “lentitude” and “logomachy” – but I did love the author’s trick of jumping into different perspectives. On multiple occasions he employs an “anonymous observer,” and in various chapters the point-of-view shifts to a member of the animal kingdom: Polanski the cat, a black kite flying overhead, a mole popping up in the garden, or a beetle winging across the detritus of Gabriel’s untidy household. We also get an extended section from Laura’s journals that reveals a disturbing family secret.
This is not one for the squeamish as it gives an unflinching account of dialysis: “His forearm throbbed, lacerated by needle marks. Sara had taken a while to find the fistula, and now the pain spread under the surgical tape like a jellyfish sting.” But for every passage that makes you cringe there’s a beautiful one that captures things perfectly: “he is living in constant deferment, between parentheses” and “If the succubus of his bad dreams were to say to him, ‘Make a wish,’ he would ask to be able to mold himself to the geological quietude of stones.”
The Plimsoll Line won Spain’s Premio Tiflos de Novela in 2008 and first appeared in English translation in 2015. It is part of a “Trilogy of Illness”; I presume the other volumes are not yet available in English, though I’ve enquired of the translator, Jonathan Dunne, via a Facebook message just in case. Forget Ferrante and Knausgaard; this is the semi-autobiographical series I’ll be awaiting the next installment of with bated breath.
Hundreds of Interlaced Fingers by Vanessa Grubbs
Grubbs is a nephrologist and assistant professor of medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. Well before she made the kidneys her clinical area of expertise, a personal encounter made them special to her. In 2003 she met Robert Phillips when she was an attending trying to get support for her Office of Diversity Affairs; he was a hospital trustee. She only later learned, after they started dating, that due to FSGS his kidneys had failed in his twenties and he’d been on dialysis for years. In 2005 she donated him one of her kidneys. Robert’s health was touch-and-go for a little while there, but he proposed to her soon afterwards. I read about a third of this and then skimmed the rest because I wasn’t all that interested in their separate histories. However, I did like the context Grubbs gives, such as a brief history of dialysis, nephrology case studies, and a great set of FAQs. She also notes that minorities are less likely to get organ transplants, a disparity she is working to rectify.
This memoir grew out of an essay for Health Affairs, “Good for Harvest, Bad for Planting.” Releases June 13th.
The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
(First reviewed in November 2015; here’s a shortened version.) Lying in a hospice bed, 40-year-old Ivo looks back on his life. Even after just four short decades and a modest career at a garden center, he has plenty to regret. Hard partying and drug use exacerbated his diabetes and prompted kidney failure. His lifestyle also led indirectly to his girlfriend, nursing student Mia (the “you” he often addresses directly), leaving him. He’s estranged from his sister and his friends from school days, especially Mal. How did he mess up so badly and cut himself off so completely that he’s now dying alone? And how much can he put right before he goes?
There’s plenty of affecting writing in Hannah’s debut novel. I liked how he captures the routines of institutional life. Nurse Sheila’s A to Z game, encouraging Ivo to think of a memory attached to body parts starting with each letter of the alphabet, provides a hokey but effective structure. Keeping in mind that in British English Z is pronounced ‘zed’, the title doesn’t rhyme, but this is still somewhat sappy. I’d recommend it to fans of Mark Haddon and David Nicholls. I’ll follow Hannah’s career and hope he avoids melodrama and a contrived setup – the two near-pitfalls of this one – in the future.
The Reluctant Donor by Suzanne F. Ruff
A sepia-toned photograph at the centerfold tells a solemn tale: six of these eight members of Ruff’s Irish-Catholic Chicago family died, directly or indirectly, as a result of PKD. I’ve always known there’s a long waiting list for transplant kidneys, but I was surprised to learn that dialysis machines used to be rare; demand far exceeded supply, and the procedure was not covered by Medicare until 1973. Ruff’s aunt, Sister Mike, decided the lives of people with children were more important than her own, so didn’t press for dialysis; when her kidneys failed in her forties, death followed just a few months later.
Things had greatly improved by the time Ruff’s mother needed a transplant. Joan sounds like a feisty, lovable character, with plenty of good advice on being a patient: fight for your rights (the meek ones often end up being carried out feet first), get up and walk as soon after surgery as you possibly can, and appreciate the joy of an entirely ordinary day. Ruff’s parents had her and her sisters tested for PKD when they were teenagers. Having gone to the trouble, they then lied about the results! They said no one had PKD, but in the end two out of three did; only Ruff was spared. This is how she ended up donating a kidney to her younger sister, JoAnn. The more interesting sections of the book are about Ruff’s family history; her internal struggle to convince herself to commit to organ donation makes for pretty repetitive moaning.
In general, the writing isn’t great. Skimming through, I found a page with 16 of my proofreading marks; on most pages it’s more like 2–3. There’s also a tendency to over-write when portraying emotion: “Genetic disease. Those two words made my spine shiver, my ears ring, my throat close, and my heart pound; I became lightheaded and faint. Terror crept into my core and gripped me in its vice [sic].” While I’m not sure I could recommend this to someone who doesn’t have a personal stake in organ donation, for those who are interested in an autobiographical account of genetic disease/transplant surgery, it’s a quick, pleasant read.
Plus two more kidney-themed novels I’m on the look-out for:
- Useful, Debra Oswald, about a man who decides to donate a kidney to a stranger
- The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days, Lisa Yee, a YA comedy in which a girl asks her boyfriend if he’d give her a kidney. Hypothetically, right?
I’m on the fence about:
- Larry’s Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant—and Save His Life, Daniel Asa Rose (I think the subtitle says it all!)
- I, Kidney, Chris Six: a self-published, semi-autobiographical novel
Short Stories in September
In 2014 I read 20 short story collections, but in 2015 and 2016 (at least so far) I’ve only managed 10 per year. Three of those have all clumped within the last month or so, though. I started The Pier Falls back in May but set it aside at the halfway point; luckily, when I returned to it earlier this month I devoured the rest within a few hours. I also reviewed the second annual anthology of Best Small Fictions for the Small Press Book Review, a new online venue for me, and tried out Alexandra Kleeman’s short stories after loving her debut novel last year. Mini reviews below…
Best Small Fictions 2016, edited by Stuart Dybek
This collects 45 super-short stories that stand out for their structure, voice, and character development—all in spite of often extreme brevity. Humor and pathos provide sharp pivot points. It helps to have an unusual perspective, like that of a Venus flytrap observing a household’s upheavals (Janey Skinner’s “Carnivores”), or of potential names gathering around a baptismal font (Alberto Chimal’s “The Waterfall”). Hard as it is to choose from such a diverse bunch, I do have three favorites: Elizabeth Morton’s “Parting,” in which a divorce causes things to be literally divided; Mary-Jane Holmes’s “Trifle,” where alliteration and culinary vocabulary contrast an English summer with Middle Eastern traces; and Amir Adam’s “The Physics of Satellites,” which uses images from astronomy and a recent suicide to contrast falling, flying, and barely holding on. There are fewer highlights than in the previous volume, but this is still an excellent snapshot of contemporary flash fiction. (See my full review at the Small Press Book Review.)
The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon
These nine stories examine what characters do in extreme, often violent situations. My three favorites were “Bunny,” reminiscent of The Fattest Man in Britain with its picture of a friendship between an obese man and a young woman who sees more in him than his size; “The Woodpecker and the Wolf,” a brilliantly suspenseful tale set in space – it reminded me of the Sandra Bullock movie Gravity; and “The Weir,” which imagines the unexpectedly lasting relationship between a lonely middle-aged man and the young woman he rescues from a near-suicide by drowning. “Wodwo” starts off as a terrific Christmas horror story but goes on far too long and loses power. I would say that about several of these stories, actually: they’re that bit too long, so that you start waiting for them to be over. I prefer sudden endings that give a bit of a kick. All in all, though, two-thirds of the stories are fairly memorable, and I’d say I liked this better than any of Haddon’s three novels.
Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman
Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was a surprise favorite of mine from last year. Alas, her stories don’t pack the same punch. True, some of them employ a similar combination of surreal plot and in-your-face ideology, but only four out of the 12 stories seemed to me strong enough to stand alone. These were “Lobster Dinner,” surely inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, in which crustaceans wreak revenge on their consumers; “The Dancing-Master,” about a man who tries to introduce a nineteenth-century feral boy to culture only for wildness to come creeping back; “I May Not Be the One You Want,” in which Karen, writing a profile about a dairy farmer, avoids men’s attempts to turn her into a sexual object; and “Fake Blood,” another pseudo-horror story about a girl in a nurse costume who can’t decide whether she’s caught up in a murder mystery game or a real serial killer’s trap. Of the rest, four or five – including vignettes from Karen’s future life – are okay and a couple are pointless as well as seemingly endless (“A Brief History of Weather” and “Hylomorphosis”). Students of feminist literature, especially fans of Angela Carter, may be willing to exchange satisfying storytelling for messages about women’s bodies and anxiety about motherhood.
On Tuesday I finished All That Man Is by David Szalay, from the Booker Prize shortlist. Whether it’s a novel or actually short stories is certainly a matter for debate! After I read Madeleine Thien’s shortlisted novel (I’ll be picking it up from the library on Friday) I’ll report back on both in advance of the prize announcement at the end of October.
I’m also currently making my way through How Much the Heart Can Hold, a set of seven stories from the likes of Carys Bray and Donal Ryan on the theme of different types of love, and Petina Gappah’s forthcoming collection, Rotten Row. (Both are out in early November.)
Collections on my Kindle that I’m keen to read soon, maybe even before the end of this year, include We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Music in Wartime by Rebecca Makkai, and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Looking for Community: Oliver Balch’s Under the Tump
My eagle eye for anything related to Hay-on-Wye led me to this book, a memoir of sorts about moving to the Welsh Borders in the search for a sense of community. Journalist Oliver Balch and his wife had previously lived in London and then started a family while living in Argentina. Although they loved the vibrancy and social opportunities of city life, when they moved back to the UK in 2012 they were in search of something different:
I fancied living somewhere with open skies and fresh air; somewhere I could strap on my walking boots and head out for a hike; somewhere alive to the sound of birdsong rather than bus exhausts. I envisioned the same for the boys. Growing up in wellies and with dirty knees. Weekend camping trips. Swimming in the river.
But it was more than just the natural scenery that drew him to the England–Wales border town of Clyro. “I liked the idea of finding a place where I could truly belong. It would be good to be on the inside for once, to be a thread or stitch in the social fabric.” It was John Updike, of all people, who inspired him to seek out small-town life. “For a writer, it’s good to live between a widow and a plumber,” Updike wrote – to be surrounded by different, ordinary people and get to know your neighbors in an old-fashioned but still desirable way.
After the family settled in at Pottery Cottage, another of Balch’s guiding spirits was Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872. He’s known today for the diary he started keeping in 1870. As he went around visiting, he made pen portraits of his parishioners, often summing people up through one apt phrase of Dickensian description. In a sense, Balch is trying to do the same thing with these sketches of his new community members. Meanwhile, he weaves in biographical information about Kilvert in much the same way that Helen Macdonald does about T.H. White in H is for Hawk.There’s still an active Kilvert Society today, and early on Balch joined them for a tour of Clyro. With the River Wye, the Black Mountains and the book town of Hay-on-Wye all in range, it’s a splendid view:
The Wye is at its nearest to the east, huddled in the dip between two rippled fields of honeyed wheat and brilliant yellow rapeseed, its emerald-green waters rushing fast above the reeds. … Burrowed among the trees above its far bank stands Hay, a blue-grey patchwork of tiled rooftops amid a swathe of sylvan green. Poking above the tree canopy is the castle … And then beyond, of course, the barren bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains. Implacably wild. Their beauty hard, unremitting, almost brutish in their bluntness.
Balch starts trying to fit in by joining the regular drinkers at the Rhydspence Inn, an old-fashioned pub, on Wednesday nights. He’s closest with Tony, a farmer, and subsequently observes the Young Farmers group. In other chapters he profiles the unconventional, hippie types drawn to the area, like the owners of Hay’s fair trade shop; and the locals and shopkeepers involved in the Thursday market. He also sits in on some community planning meetings and learns about a recent anti-supermarket campaign. The Town Council and the “Hay Together” interest group are often at odds, he learns. A Chamber of Commerce meeting turns into an argument about renovating the Castle, one of Hay’s chief landmarks.My favorite chapter of all was about the Hay Festival, one of the foremost literary festivals in the UK. (It starts this week, in fact.) Although I’ve been to Hay five times since 2004, I’ve never attended its annual festival. I loved getting a peek behind the scenes, as Balch interviewed an author who’d written a guide to the local area. For Balch, his feelings about the festival prove that he’s finally thinking more like a local than an ‘incomer’:
Part of me is elated that the outside world has landed on our doorstep. For a brief window in late spring, everywhere I turn there are urbanites like me. … Simultaneously, part of me recoils. … I feel invaded. Some traitorous wretch has spilled word of our rural haven and now legions of out-of-towners have arrived, overrunning the place with their unmuddied cars and city manners.
Even in the decade that I’ve been visiting, I can recognize some of the processes Balch pinpoints – essentially evidence of gentrification going on in Hay and the surrounding area. Under the ownership of an American female entrepreneur, for instance, Booth’s Bookshop has been transformed from a falling-down jumble sale into a well-presented independent bookstore with a posh café. Some of the locals Balch meets are delighted with the changes, while others feel that the snobs are taking over and driving up prices for regular folk.
If I was a bit disappointed with this book, it’s because I didn’t fully heed the subtitle – “Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders.” It’s not meant to be a chronological narrative of Balch’s time in Clyro but a thematic tour, with some common threads running through. This means that, depending on the reader, certain chapters will probably seem much more interesting than others. So the best part of “The Young Farmers” chapter, for me, was a description of a cow doing a messy poo (“the most splendid jet of steaming gravy-colored excrement”); otherwise I found it entirely tedious.Perhaps I wrongly expected this to be exactly like Paul Collins’s Sixpence House. This 2003 memoir of trying to make a life in Hay is among my all-time favorite reads. Although similar on the surface, Under the Tump is a very different book. I appreciated it most as a narrative of searching for a place to call home – something that will surely strike a chord with any reader.
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy.
- Other books that reference Hay-on-Wye:
- Reading in Bed by Sue Gee opens at the Hay Festival.
- In The Red House by Mark Haddon, a dysfunctional family vacations in the countryside near Hay.
- In Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman, the main female character is from Hay.
- One of the settings in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is a bookstore in a small Welsh village. (Okay, not quite Hay.)
- Plus one from the TBR: in The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, an antiquarian bookseller browsing in a shop in Hay finds a book that sets him off on a quest.
Reviews Roundup, January–February
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.
The Seed Collectors & The A to Z of You and Me
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
“I have no idea why everyone thinks nature is so benign and glorious and wonderful. All nature is trying to do is kill us as efficiently as possible.”
This offbeat novel about obsession, sex and inheritance is set in Kent in 2011 and stars an extended family of botanists. The concept of a family tree has a more than usually literal meaning here given the shared surname is Gardener and most members are named after plants. We have Great-Aunt Oleander, recently deceased; cousin Bryony and her children Holly and Ash; siblings Charlie and Clem (short for Clematis); and half-sister Fleur, who has taken over Oleander’s yoga center, Namaste House. The generation in between was virtually lost, perhaps to a plant-based drug overdose, on a seed collecting expedition to the South Pacific. Oleander has left each motherless child one of these possibly deadly seed pods.
Did I mention the book is saturated with sex? Incest, adultery, illegitimate children, S&M, Internet porn, you name it. But beyond that, the metaphorical language is highly sexualized – bursting with seeds, fertility and genital-like plants. I can’t think when I’ve encountered such oversexed vocabulary since D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Here’s a sampling:
Dave seems to be avoiding the clouds as he works the little plane up into the sky, penetrating it slowly, and really quite gently.
A surprising amount of plants look like dicks.
(of peat) It’s like walking on a giant’s pubes.
All lettuce wants is sex. And violence. Just like all plants. It wants to reproduce, and it wants to kill or damage its rivals so they don’t reproduce.
So many flowers are basically little sex booths.
And she was pulling him towards her, deeper into her, as if he were a flower and she an insect desperate for his cheap, sugary nectar.
Connections between characters morph and take on new dimensions as the book goes on. A few characters are unrealized, such as Fleur, which meant I felt slightly disconnected from them. (My ‘favorite’ in a book stuffed full of unlikable figures was probably Bryony, whose hunger for food, alcohol and shopping seems to be endless.) Likewise, not all the storylines are truly essential, so the book seems aimless for its final third; it definitely could have been shorter and tied together better, perhaps with some flashbacks to the previous generation’s experiences on the island to make the past feel more alive. The spiritual element remains vague, although there is a pleasant touch of magic realism along the way.
Despite these reservations, I truly enjoyed Thomas’s unusual writing. She moves freely between characters’ perspectives but also inserts odd second-person asides asking philosophical questions about wasted time and what is truly important in life. One peculiar little section even imagines the point-of-view of a robin in the garden of Namaste House, with made-up words fit for “The Jabberwocky”: “The man is, as always, incompt and untrig. He sloggers around his rooms in his black and grey ragtails like an elderly magpie.”
I like the range of questions you’re left with as a reader: Is nature malicious? Can we overcome our addictions? How much of who we are is down to our parentage? Does life really just come down to sex? The content of the novel might be reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Andrea Barrett’s science-infused fiction or The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter, but the style is totally different. I can’t even think who it reminds me of; it feels pretty one of a kind to me. Luckily this is Thomas’s sixth novel, so there’s plenty more for me to explore.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.
The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
Lying in a hospice bed, 40-year-old Ivo looks back on his life. Even after just four short decades and a modest career at a garden center, he has plenty to regret. Hard partying and drug use exacerbated his diabetes and prompted kidney failure. His lifestyle also led indirectly to his girlfriend, a nursing student named Mia (the “you” whom he often addresses directly), leaving him. He’s estranged from his sister and the friends he’d been close to since school days, especially Mal. How did he mess up so badly and cut himself off so completely that he’s now dying alone? And how much can he put right before he goes?
There’s plenty of affecting writing in Hannah’s debut novel, as in one of my favorite passages: “The sun chooses this moment to radiate through to me, through me. It feels like – it feels like life. I can sense my corrupt blood bubbling and basking beneath the surface.” I also love how Hannah captures the routines of institutional life – the sights, smells and sounds that come to define Ivo’s circumscribed life:
Round the corner now. Noticeboard up on the right, pinned every inch over with flyers and leaflets. The papers at the bottom lift and flutter in the convection of the heater beneath.
I am lost in a world of regular hums, distant beeping, the periodic reheating of the coffee machine in the corridor, and that steady kazoo [of his next-door neighbor’s breathing].
Nurse Sheila and Amber, the daughter of another hospice patient, are great supporting characters. Sheila’s A to Z game, encouraging Ivo to think of a memory attached to body parts starting with each letter of the alphabet, provides a hokey but effective structure. As Ivo’s condition deteriorates and his thoughts are scrambled by morphine, his narration gradually becomes less coherent and more insular. This means that by the time we reach the conclusion (which somehow manages to be both predictable and shocking at the same time), we aren’t sure whether he’s giving a reliable account of events or imagining things.
Ultimately, I felt confused about what Hannah meant for the book to be. Is this Irvine Welsh lite? Or a Rachel Joyce style tear-jerker? It’s similar in setup to The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, you see, and the remembered relationship with Mia is rather sappy. However, keep in mind that in British English the letter Z is pronounced ‘zed’, so the title doesn’t rhyme, which keeps it from being overly twee. Another barrier to my appreciation of the novel was that I never understood why Ivo was dying. People don’t die of kidney failure nowadays, thanks to dialysis and transplantation. (I have a kidney disease, so I should know!)
I’d recommend this book to fans of Mark Haddon, David Nicholls and Donal Ryan. I’ll follow Hannah’s career and hope he can avoid melodrama and a contrived structure – the two near-pitfalls of this one – in the future.
With thanks to Transworld Books for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.