(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.
The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.
This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.
My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]
The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.
Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.
My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.
My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts
I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus for Pride Month:
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt
There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.
Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.
Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).
Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
What recent releases can you recommend?
(This was meant to be one entry in a roundup of mini-reviews, but I found that I had far too much to say about it. On Sunday I’ll feature three more May releases I’ve read.)
1997. Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. At 31, she lives in a tiny studio apartment off of her brother’s friend’s house and cycles everywhere. Between shifts waitressing at Iris, a trendy restaurant above a Harvard social club, she chips away at the Cuba-set novel she’s been writing for six years.
Through her writer friend Muriel she meets two love interests at a book launch for Oscar Kolton, a former Boston University professor and novelist who’s been leading a fiction workshop since his wife’s death a few years ago. One is the fortysomething Oscar himself; the other, who initially seems more promising, is Silas, a would-be writer from the workshop. But before they have a chance to see if this will go somewhere, Silas is off. He leaves Casey a voicemail saying he needs to get away for a while. Oh well; just another flake, she thinks.
After he and his adorable young sons come in to the restaurant for brunch one day, her interest is squarely in Oscar. Or, that is, until Silas comes back and she finds herself dating two men at the same time. A museum trip with Silas here, a dinner out with Oscar there. As if her love life isn’t complication enough, before long she finds herself looking for a new job, a place to live, a literary agent, and reassurance that she’ll be okay when she takes advantage of her short-lived health insurance to get some minor medical issues checked out.
I almost passed on reading this one because I’d gotten it in my head that it was nothing more than a romantic comedy with a love triangle. I’m so glad that Kate’s review convinced me to give it a try after all. On the face of it this could hardly be more different from King’s previous novel, Euphoria, about anthropologists doing field work in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, but King’s attention to the intricacies of human relationships links the two. When I read Euphoria in late 2014, I noted the natives’ practice of cutting off a finger for every close relative lost. Here you also get the sense that everyone has lost someone, and that these losses are as visible as physical traits. Casey is only on her second conversation with Silas when she thinks, “I can tell he lost someone close somehow. You can feel that in people, an openness, or maybe it’s an opening that you’re talking into. With other people, people who haven’t been through something like that, you feel the solid wall. Your words go scattershot off of it.”
There are so many things to love about this novel, including the wonderful/terrible scenes where she rattles off her mother’s story to two doctors and her awful father and stepmother show up for lunch. Count the rest: The Boston-area setting, the restaurant bustle, that feeling we’ve all had of wasting our talents while stuck in the wrong job and the wrong living situation. Casey’s confiding first-person, present-tense narration, the little observations on writers (when John Updike comes into the restaurant she touches his loafer for luck; she nearly swoons when Jayne Anne Phillips is at one of her tables—“Black Tickets is like a prayer book to me”; she thinks she’s blown a high school English teacher interview when she states a dislike for Cormac McCarthy—“he seemed to be alternating between imitating Hemingway and imitating Faulkner”), and even the choice between Silas and Oscar (“Fireworks or coffee in bed”). She doesn’t make the ‘right’ choice I was expecting, but if you’ve been following the clues closely you’ll realize it’s the only one she could have made.
What I loved most, though, was that we see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. “There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.” I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her as I did for Ana in Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Those who have tried writing a book will probably get even more out of this than I did, but it will resonate for anyone who’s ever felt lost and uncertain about life’s direction. “Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation?” Casey hears at a writing festival.
Think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
A real standout and one of my few early favorites from 2020.
With thanks to Picador for the unsolicited copy for review.
It’s my third time participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). The challenge starts with Stasiland (2003) by Anna Funder, which I also happened to read recently. While working part-time for an overseas television service in what was once West Berlin, Funder started gathering stories of how ordinary people were put under surveillance and psychologically terrorized by the Stasi, the East German secret police. She molds her travels and her interviewees’ testimonies into riveting stories – though this won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004, it’s as character-driven as any novel.
#1 My interest in Stasiland was piqued by reading Sophie Hardach’s Costa Prize-shortlisted novel Confession with Blue Horses (2019). When Ella’s parents, East German art historians under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect during a ‘vacation’ to Hungary in 1987, their three children were taken from them and only two were returned. Ella is determined to find her brother, whom they’ve had no word of since, via a correspondence with the Stasi archive. It’s an emotionally involving story of one ordinary family’s losses and reconstruction.
#2 Blue Horses (2014) is one of Mary Oliver’s lesser poetry collections. I found it to be a desperately earnest and somewhat overbaked set of nature observations and pat spiritual realizations. There are a few poems worth reading (e.g., “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond” and Part 3 of “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and lines here and there fit for saving, but overall this is so weak that I’d direct readers to Oliver’s landmark 1980s work instead.
#3 Oliver’s poetry, especially “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” gets quoted everywhere. The latter’s most famous lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” appears in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, my book of 2020 so far. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a completely natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her late father, also a doctor, and his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate yet practical book, this aims to get people talking about end-of-life issues.
#4 I have meant to read Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) since before she won the Nobel Prize. I was sent a free paperback copy for a Nudge review, but as the site already had a review of the book up, I let it slip and never followed through. More than once I’ve put this short story collection onto a reading stack, but I have never quite gotten past the first page or two. At some point this must be rectified.
#5 Alice Munro is one of the authors featured in Writers & Co. by Eleanor Wachtel (1993), a terrific collection of interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
#6 My first-ever author Q&A, for Bookkaholic in 2013, was related to The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver. (Alas that the site is now defunct, so the interview only exists as a file on my computer.) In an astonishing historical sweep, from Massachusetts’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent‒child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
I recently participated in the one-week “My Life in Books” extravaganza hosted by Simon Thomas (Stuck in a Book), where he asks bloggers to choose five books that have been important to them at different points in their reading lives. The neat twist is that he puts the bloggers in pairs and asks them to comment anonymously on their partner’s reading choices and even come up with an apt book recommendation or two. A few of my selections will be familiar from the two Landmark Books posts I wrote in 2016 (here and here), but a couple are new, and it was fun to think about what’s changed versus what’s endured in my reading taste.
Shiny New Books
Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman: If you read one 2019 release, make it this one. (It’s too important a book to dilute that statement with qualifiers.) Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This book is a way of taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. From the Kent marshes to the Coral Triangle off Indonesia, Hoffman discovers the situation on the ground and talks to the people involved in protecting places at risk of destruction. Reassuringly, these aren’t usually genius scientists or well-funded heroes, but ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving nearby sites that mean something to them. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. It takes local concerns seriously, yet its scope is international. But what truly lifts Hoffman’s work above most recent nature books is the exquisite prose.
Times Literary Supplement
These three reviews are forthcoming.
The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton: Cohen-Hatton is one of the UK’s highest-ranking female firefighters. A few perilous situations inspired her to investigate how people make decisions under pressure. For a PhD in Psychology from Cardiff University, she delved into the neurology of decision-making. Although there is jargon in the book, she explains the terms well and uses relatable metaphors. However, the context about her research can be repetitive and basic, as if dumbed down for a general reader. The book shines when giving blow-by-blow accounts of real-life or composite incidents. Potential readers should bear in mind, though, that this is ultimately more of a management psychology book than a memoir.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a record of his two-year experiment living alone in a cabin near a Massachusetts pond, has inspired innumerable back-to-nature adventures, including these two books I discuss together in a longer article.
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston: Beston had a two-room wooden shack built at Cape Cod in 1925. Although he only intended to spend a fortnight of the following summer in the sixteen-by-twenty-foot dwelling, he stayed a year. The chronicle of that year, The Outermost House (originally published in 1928 and previously out of print in the UK), is a charming meditation on the turning of the seasons and the sometimes terrifying power of the sea. The writing is often poetic, with sibilance conjuring the sound of the ocean. Beston will be remembered for his statement of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” he declares; “they are not underlings; they are other nations.” One word stands out in The Outermost House: “elemental” appears a dozen times, evoking the grandeur of nature and the necessity of getting back to life’s basics.
(See also Susan’s review of this one.)
Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Davies crosses Thoreauvian language – many chapter titles and epigraphs are borrowed from Walden – with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis and reeling from a series of precarious living situations, she moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir is a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote, and education is no guarantee of success. There is, understandably, a sense of righteous indignation here against a land-owning class – including the lord who owns much of the area where she lives and works – and government policies that favour the wealthy.