Tag: memoirs

Brain vs. Heart Surgery: Admissions and Fragile Lives

It’s never too early to start thinking about which books might make it onto next year’s Wellcome Book Prize nominees list, open to any medical-themed books published in the UK in calendar year 2017. I’ve already read some cracking contenders, including these two memoirs from British surgeons.


Brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s first book, Do No Harm, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. In short, enthrallingly detailed chapters named after conditions he had treated or observed, he reflected on life as a surgeon, expressing sorrow over botched operations and marveling at the God-like power he wields over people’s quality of life. That first memoir saw him approaching retirement age and nearing the end of his tether with NHS bureaucracy.

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery serves as a sort of sequel, recording Marsh’s last few weeks at his London hospital and the projects that have driven him during his first years of retirement: woodworking, renovating a derelict lock-keeper’s cottage by the canal in Oxford, and yet more neurosurgery on medical missions to Nepal and the Ukraine. But he also ranges widely over his past, recalling cases from his early years in medicine as well as from recent memory, and describing his schooling and his parents. If I were being unkind, I might say that this feels like a collection of leftover incidents from the previous book project.

However, the life of a brain surgeon is so undeniably exciting that, even if these stories are the scraps, they are delicious ones. The title has a double meaning, of course, referring not only to the patients who are admitted to the hospital but also to a surgeon’s confessions. And there are certainly many cases Marsh regrets, including operating on the wrong side in a trapped nerve patient, failing to spot that a patient was on the verge of a diabetic coma before surgery, and a young woman going blind after an operation in the Ukraine. Often there is no clear right decision, though; operating or not operating could lead to equal damage.

Once again I was struck by Marsh’s trenchant humor: he recognizes the absurdities as well as the injustices of life. In Houston he taught on a neurosurgery workshop in which students created and then treated aneurysms in live pigs. When asked “Professor, can you give us some surgical pearls?” he “thought a little apologetically of the swine in the nearby bay undergoing surgery.” A year or so later, discussing the case of a twenty-two-year-old with a fractured spine, he bitterly says, “Christopher Reeve was a millionaire and lived in America and he eventually died from complications, so what chance a poor peasant in Nepal?”

Although some slightly odd structural decisions have gone into this book – the narrative keeps jumping back to Nepal and the Ukraine, and a late chapter called “Memory” is particularly scattered in focus – I still thoroughly enjoyed reading more of Marsh’s anecdotes. The final chapter is suitably melancholy, with its sense of winding down capturing not just the somewhat slower pace of his retired life but also his awareness of the inevitable approach of death. Recalling two particularly hideous deaths he observed in his first years as a doctor, he lends theoretical approval for euthanasia as a way of maintaining dignity until the end.

What I most admire about Marsh’s writing is how he blends realism and wonder. “When my brain dies, ‘I’ will die. ‘I’ am a transient electrochemical dance, made of myriad bits of information,” he recognizes. But that doesn’t deter him from producing lyrical passages like this one: “The white corpus callosum came into view at the floor of the chasm, like a white beach between two cliffs. Running along it, like two rivers, were the anterior cerebral arteries, one on other side, bright red, pulsing gently with the heartbeat.” I highly recommend his work to readers of Atul Gawande and Paul Kalanithi.

My rating:

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review. It will be published in the USA by Thomas Dunne Books on October 3rd.

 

 

What Marsh does for brain surgery in his pair of memoirs, Professor Stephen Westaby does for heart surgery in Fragile Lives, a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from his long career. A working class lad from Scunthorpe who watched his grandfather die of heart failure, he made his way up from hospital porter to world-leading surgeon after training at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.

Each of these case studies, from a young African mother and her sick child whom he met while working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to a university student who collapses not far from his hospital in Oxford, is told in impressive depth. Although the surgery details are not for the squeamish, I found them riveting. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.

Like Marsh, he tries not to get emotionally attached to his patients, but often fails in this respect. “Surgeons are meant to be objective, not human,” he shrugs. But, also like Marsh, at his retirement he feels that NHS bureaucracy has tied his hands, denying necessary funds and equipment. Both authors come across as mavericks who don’t play by the rules, but save lives anyway. This is a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys books on a medical theme.

A few favorite lines:

 “We stop life and start it again, making things better, taking calculated risks.”

“We were adrenaline junkies living on a continuous high, craving action. From bleeding patients to cardiac arrests. From theatre to intensive care. From pub to party.”

My rating:


Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table was published in the UK by HarperCollins on February 9th. I read a public library copy. It will be published in the USA, by Basic Books, under the title Open Heart on June 20th.

The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

I keep a long list of books that I’d love to read but know are only currently available in the USA. Occasionally I manage to chip away at it through my public library borrowing during trips back to visit my family, but I’m adding more titles all the time. I was pleased, then, to learn that The Folded Clock, a book I’ve wanted to get hold of ever since it was first released in the States in 2015, was recently published in the UK.

Heidi Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer magazine as well as a novelist and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in New York City during the academic year and spends the rest of the time in Maine, where she was born and raised. The Folded Clock is a diary of two fairly average years in her life, but its dated entries (month and day only) are not in order; they’ve been rearranged into what at times feels like an arbitrary sequence. Yet this is in keeping with the overall theme of time’s fluidity.

The title comes from her daughter’s mishearing of “folded cloth” but is apt in that it suggests time stretching and collapsing back on itself. Indeed, one reason for starting the journal was that Julavits felt time had started to pass differently from how it did in her childhood. Whereas she once thought in terms of days, she realized in her forties that she now worked in weeks and months. She was also inspired by digging out her adolescent diary – though it was not nearly as profound or revelatory about her future writing career as she might have hoped.

Every single entry begins with “Today,” reflecting a determination to live in the present. But of course, that format still offers a broad scope for memory, with certain activities and objects provoking flashbacks. For instance, she finds her ten-year-old marriage vows in the pocket of an old coat, and rereads a biography of Edie Sedgwick (from Andy Warhol’s circle, she died of a drug overdose at 28), as she periodically does to gauge how her response changes as she ages.

Julavits also situates her writing in the context of other famous diarists, such as the Goncourt brothers and Henry David Thoreau. As the latter did in Walden, she’s seeking to live deliberately, though within her regular life and without venturing into nature all that much; “I am an outdoorsman of the indoors,” she quips.

The cover design is by Leanne Shapton.

There’s a huge variety of topics here. She writes about being afraid of sharks, stealing names to use for characters in her novels, entering her small Maine town’s Fourth of July parade float competition, visiting E.B. White’s grave, mourning a tree half-lost to a hurricane, her insistence on dwelling in west-facing rooms, and regretting never telling her doctor how much she appreciated him before he died in a cycling accident. Travel features heavily, too, what with accompanying her husband to a fellowship in Germany and spending time at an art colony in Italy. Often it’s the tiny encounters and incidents that remain in her mind, though, like accidentally buying bitter apricot kernels instead of almonds at a German market and worrying that her husband might have given himself cyanide poisoning by eating 14 at once.

Some of these pieces would function well as stand-alone essays, like the one about her obsession with The Bachelor, an American reality television franchise, which leads into her belief that crushes are fostered by small spaces – she fell for her second husband (author Ben Marcus) at an arts colony even though they were both attached to other people at the time.

I was delighted to see Julavits quote the Julian Barnes passage on episodicism versus narrativism that inspired my post on that topic back in January. Unsurprisingly, Julavits sees herself as a narrativist, drawing connections between different points in her life. She’s always pondering what small incidents reveal about her character. We learn that she’s so averse to inconveniencing others that she continued a phone call while nursing a wasp sting and once planned to pee in an airsickness bag rather than wake the two sleepers between her and the aisle on a flight. She avoids yard sales because she’s so cutthroat, and she’s been known to romanticize her daily life when e-mailing a friend in London: “I probably didn’t tell the truthiest truths. I never made stuff up. But I did strive to be entertaining. Such embellishments do not constitute lies. They constitute your personality.”

In one of the pieces that stood out most for me, Julavits feels typecast as a woman of a certain age when she attends a Virginia Woolf reading. “I am of that age now where I am looking for the next age I will be. How will I dress? How will I act?” It’s a good example of how she uses these mini-essays to negotiate the stages of life and contemplate her changing roles. Elsewhere she sums up her composite identity and what she seeks from her writing:

I am a jack-of-all-trades. I edit and teach and at times desire to be a clothing designer or an artist … and I write everything but poetry and I am a mother and a social maniac and a misanthrope and a burgeoning self-help guru and a girl who wants to look pretty and a girl who wants to look sexy and a girl who wants to look girly and a woman in her middle forties who wishes not to look like anything at all, who wishes sometimes to vanish.

I sometimes think this is why I became a writer. Here was a way to regularly exercise my desire. I could desire to do this thing that no one does perfectly, and by doing it and doing it I could learn how to desire more, and better. Here was an activity that would always leave me wanting … not youth exactly, but the opposite of death. That to me is a way to always feel like I am nowhere near the end.

Inevitably, some entries are more interesting than others, and Julavits’ neuroticism may grate for some readers, but I found this book to be chock-full of quotable lines and insights into what it means to be a time-bound human being. Like one of May Sarton’s journals, I read it slowly, just a few pieces at a time over the course of weeks, and I’ll be keeping it on the shelf to flick through if I ever need an example of how to write a piercing, bite-sized fragment of autobiography. I highly recommend it.

(See also this brief Guardian interview with Julavits.)


The Folded Clock: A Diary was published by Bloomsbury Circus on March 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

My rating:

A Spate of Swimming Memoirs

In the first four months of this year, I got my hands on no fewer than four swimming memoirs. For the upcoming July/August issue of Foreword Reviews magazine I’ve reviewed Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane, in which the author recreates the late nature writer Roger Deakin’s wild swimming journeys from Waterlog (1999) in an attempt to overcome anxiety; I have Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley on my Kindle; and I read roughly the first 60 pages of a library copy of Al Álvarez’s 2013 Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.

For now, I’m featuring Turning by Jessica J. Lee, which has strong similarities to these other memoirs – especially Minihane’s – but is its own beautifully reflective personal story. The book arose from Lee’s resolution, when she was 28 and in Berlin on a research placement for her dissertation in environmental history, to swim in 52 local lakes – a year’s worth – no matter the weather. At the time she blogged about her “52 Lakes Project” for Slow Travel Berlin, and kept friends and family up to date through social media as well. Her focus would be on the former East German region of Brandenburg, which has Berlin at its center and was first popularized by Theodor Fontane’s 1862 travel book.

Lee traveled to the lakes under her own steam, using trains and her bicycle; occasionally she took friends with her, but most often she was alone, which became a chance to cultivate solitude – not the same as loneliness. The challenge entailed all kinds of practical difficulties like bike trouble, getting lost, and a dead phone battery, but gradually it became routine and held less fear for her. On summer days she could manage multiple lakes in a day, and even small encounters with Germans gave her a newfound sense of belonging.

Within chapters, the memoir gracefully alternates pieces of the author’s past with her lake travels. With a father from Wales and a mother from Taiwan, Lee grew up in Ontario and spent summers in Florida. She remembers taking YMCA swimming lessons alongside her mother, and swimming in Canadian lakes. Back then the water usually intimidated her, but over the years her feelings have changed:

Water feels different in each place. The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.

Swimming fulfills many functions for Lee. It served variously as necessary discipline after going mildly off the rails in young adulthood (drinking, smoking pot and having an abortion during college; a short-lived marriage in her early twenties); as a way of bouncing back from depression when her planned life in London didn’t pan out and a budding relationship failed; and as a way of being in touch with the turning seasons and coming to know the German landscape intimately. Symbolically, of course, it’s also a baptism into a new life.

Yet I had to wonder if there was also something masochistic about this pursuit, especially in the winter months. On the back cover there’s a photograph of Lee using a hammer to chip out a path through the ice so she can do her minimum of 45 strokes. (No wetsuit!) As spring came, ironically, the water felt almost too warm to her. She had learned to master the timing of a winter swim: “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”

The end of Lee’s year-long project is bittersweet, but she’s consoled by the fact that she didn’t have to leave her ordinary life in order to complete it. It was a companion alongside the frantic last-minute work on her dissertation and it never got in the way of her relationships; on the contrary, it strengthened certain friendships. And with Berlin looking like her home for the foreseeable future, she’s committed to seeking out more lakes, too.

There are a lot of year quest books out there, but this one never feels formulaic because there’s such a fluid intermingling of past and present. As memoirs go, it is somewhat like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – but much better. It’s also comparable to Angela Palm’s Riverine, with a watery metaphor at the heart to reflect the author’s conception of life as a meandering route. Unlike the other swimming memoirs I’ve sampled, I can recommend this one to a general reader with no particular interest in wild swimming or any other sport. It’s for you if you enjoy reading about the ebb and flow of women’s lives.

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border, as if constantly searching for home. Water is a place in which I don’t belong, but where I find myself nonetheless. Out of my culture, out of my depth.

There is more space inside than I can imagine, more hope and possibility than I’d known. Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.


Turning: A Swimming Memoir was published in the UK by Virago on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.

My rating:

Finding a Home in Nature: Singing Meadow by Peri McQuay

For 30 years Peri McQuay and her family lived in the idyllic 700-strong village of Westport in Eastern Ontario. Her husband, Barry, was the park supervisor at Foley Mountain Conservation Area, the subject of her first nature-themed memoir, The View from Foley Mountain (1995), and they lived on site amid its 800 acres. The constant push to engage in fundraising gradually made it a less pleasant place to live and work, so as Barry’s retirement neared they knew it was time to find a new home of their own. That quest is the subject of her third book, Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home.

McQuay fantasized about a farmhouse surrounded by 50–100 acres of their own land, but was aware that their limited finances might not stretch to match their dreams. Long before they found their home they were buying little items for it, like an acorn door knocker that functioned as a reassuring totem object during the long, discouraging process of looking at houses. Over the course of two years, McQuay and her husband viewed more than 80 properties! Two pieces of advice they received turned out to be prescient: their loquacious real estate agent opined that “the house you end up in won’t be the one you set out to find,” and a woman in the doctor’s office waiting room counseled her, “don’t try too hard. It’ll happen when it’s time.”

In the end, they fell in love with a plot of land with a water meadow that was home to herons and beavers. With no handyman skills, they never thought they’d embark on building a home of their own. And as it turned out, finding the land was the easy bit, as opposed to the nitty-gritty details of designing what they wanted and meeting with builders who could make it a reality. But as they planted trees and looked ahead to their move in a year’s time, they were already forming a relationship with this place before the house was ever built, learning “the hard lessons of patience and possibility.”

Woven through the book are short flashbacks to other challenging times in McQuay’s life: having chronic fatigue syndrome in her 40s, her mother’s death a few years earlier, and a terrible ice storm at the park that left them without power for 17 days and caused damage to the forest that it might take 30 years to recover from. What all of these situations, as well as looking for a home, have in common is that they forced the author to take the long view, recognizing the healing effects of time rather than the tantalizing option of quick fixes.

I’ve never owned a home, but I’ve lived in 10 properties in the last 10 years. A lot of that nomadism has been foisted upon us rather than chosen, so I could relate to McQuay’s frustration throughout the property search, as well as her feelings of being uprooted – that “the very stuff of my life was being dismantled.” I can also see the wisdom of choosing the place that feeds your soul rather than the one that seems most convenient. She remembers one of the first properties she and Barry rented as a married couple: it was an old place with an outhouse and no running hot water, but they filled it with laughter and music and felt at peace there. It was infinitely better than any soulless town apartment they might have resorted to.

The book ends with a bit of a shocker, one of two moments that brought a lump to my throat. It’s a surprisingly bittersweet turn after what’s gone before, but it’s realistic and serves as a reminder that life is an ongoing story with sad moments we can’t prepare for.

Overall, this memoir reminds me most of Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own (which appears in McQuay’s bibliography) and May Sarton’s journals, in which the search for a long-term home in Maine is a major element. Although this will appeal to people who like reading about women’s lives and transitions, I would particularly recommend it to readers of nature writing as the book is full of lovely passages like these:

It was bliss visiting the trees and caring for them. Each one was precious. Across the meadow I could see the black, white and yellow nesting bobolink plus an unidentifiable bird with a square seed-eating beak perched on a cattail. A crow flew by, checking to see what I was doing, then a blue jay. In the distance the newly returned yellow warbler was calling “witchetty witchetty.” Over and over, I needed to keep saying that I felt deep down, richly happy in the meadow. In the glassy eye of the pond, water was burbling up in such a powerful spilling-over that it chuckled musically. Indeed, while there was such a flow only the boldest, largest minnows could swim strongly enough to approach the rushing source.

Now I was walking slowly down to the water meadow, hearing the strange, quarrelsome-sounding talk of herons beginning another season here. I was teaching myself how to be aware every moment of every step so I could keep walking longer on this rough land. With any luck, this beloved place would be my last home. And, after the unignorable message of recent fierce summers, I was here to bear witness, to stand with the great maples, beeches, and oaks through whatever might come, to accompany with whatever grace I could for as long as I could sustain it. Living here, this was who I wanted to be—an old woman vanishing into the light.

I’m keen to get hold of McQuay’s other two books as well. Her work makes for very pleasant, meditative reading.

Note: The front cover is an oil painting of Peri’s childhood home by her artist father, Ken Phillips.


Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home was published by Wintergreen Studios Press in 2016. My thanks to the author for sending a PDF copy for review.

My rating:

Blog Tour: Two Voices, One Story

“[B]eing an adoptive parent is like parenting in Technicolor: everything is just a little more intense. This means the highs can be really high, but it also means that the lows are going to be really low. You have to prepare yourself.”

~Sharon Roszia, quoted in A Book about Love, by Jonah Lehrer

Two Voices, One Story is a mother–daughter memoir that splits narration duties between Elaine Rizzo and Amy Masters, the now-teenage daughter she adopted from China in 1999. Elaine’s sections provide the main thread of their story, while Amy’s passages, generally shorter and printed in italics, chime in to give her perspective on various events and relationships that have been important in her life.

Elaine is forthright about her infertility and the miscarriage that led to her decision to adopt. In the late 1990s, China’s one-child policy was still in place, but it was the severe flooding of the Yangtze River that led directly to Amy’s adoption. Thousands died and millions more were displaced. Given the context, it’s not so surprising that baby Amy was left outside a welfare center. She was given the Chinese name Tong Fang – “Copper Child.”

For me the highlight of the book was Elaine and Lee’s trip to China to pick up Amy. Although they were nervous and disoriented, they experienced the kindness of strangers and responded with compassion of their own, taking along extra toiletries and clothes of different sizes and leaving the surplus with the care center. Amy had bronchitis, one more worry on top of all the paperwork and red tape they had to go through to finalize the adoption.

Back in England, Amy had some behavioral problems that were likely vestiges of her time at the orphanage. She hated noise, especially thunderstorms; she hit herself and others; and she often woke up screaming. Private schooling ensured she wouldn’t get left behind, and there were many happy times with extended family and holidays to Australia and the west coast of Wales, where Elaine and Amy would later settle with Elaine’s second husband.

But life wasn’t always rosy: Amy was strong-willed and uncooperative – perhaps nothing out of the ordinary for a teenager, but still a challenge for her parents. Elaine recalls a social worker telling them “that very often adoptive parents don’t feel like they have the right to tell their child off, or that they think they shouldn’t say or do anything which might upset the child, because they are trying to compensate for what has happened prior to the adoption.”

Satellite image of China in 2009 by NASA (NASA Worldwind) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Lengthy commuting to her job back in England and years-long house renovations demanded much of Elaine’s attention, yet she remained alert to what was going on with Amy. Unfortunately, in her teen years Amy experienced racism from a few schoolmates, including abusive Facebook messages that drove the family to contact the police. Amy herself, though, always comes across as easygoing about being different: “Every Christmas we used to do a Nativity show and I remember being an angel first and then one of the kings, which I suppose was the right role for me because I really do come from the East.”

Even though this is a very quick read, my interest waxed and waned. The telling can be clichéd and sentimental, and I felt too much space was given to banal details that added little to an understanding of the central mother–daughter relationship. This self-published book has a very appealing cover but needs another look from an experienced editor who could fix the fairly frequent typos and punctuation issues and cut out the bullet points (nine pages’ worth) and speech tics like “I will also say…” and “I have to comment…”

I would certainly recommend this book to those who have a personal experience of or interest in adoption, particularly from overseas (for a fictional take on adoption from China, you might also try The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, The Red Thread by Ann Hood, and This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell), as well as to anyone wondering how to parent or educate a child who is in some way different.

I’ll end with some lovely words from Amy:

when my Chinese mum left me outside the gates of the welfare center almost eighteen years ago now, because there was nothing left for me in Tongling, she must have had the desperate hope that I would find a happy life with people who loved me. I can only say that her wish did come true.

My rating:


Two Voices, One Story will be published by Clink Street Publishing on March 21st. Thanks to Rachel Gilbey of Authoright Marketing & Publicity for arranging my free copy for review.

I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for Two Voices, One Story. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

Novellas in November

Taking a lead from Laura over at Reading in Bed, I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for some blissfully short books. For this challenge I limited myself to books with fewer than 150 pages and came up with four fiction books and two ‘nonfiction novellas’.


The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

[92 pages]

libraryThis one-sitting read is a monologue by an embittered librarian who arrives one morning to discover a patron has been locked into the basement overnight—a captive audience. Responsible for Geography, she hopes for a promotion to History, her favorite subject. Alas, no one seems to appreciate this library as a bastion of learning anymore; they only come for DVDs and a place to keep warm. That is, except for Martin, a young PhD researcher who’s caught her eye. But he doesn’t even seem to notice she exists. In one uninterrupted paragraph, this celebrates all that books do for us but suggests that they still can’t fix a broken heart.

My verdict: There are lots of great one-liners about the value of books (“You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books”), but overall it’s a somewhat aimless little experiment and not particularly well translated. 3-star-rating

 

The All of It by Jeannette Haien

[145 pages]

all-of-itWhen this won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1987, the author was in her sixties. It’s since been championed by Ann Patchett, who contributed a Foreword to this 2011 edition. Father Declan de Loughry, fishing for salmon, reflects on the recent death of parishioner Kevin Dennehy. Before he died, Kevin admitted that he and Enda were never properly married. Yet Enda begs the priest to approve a death notice calling Kevin her “beloved husband,” promising she’ll then explain “the all of it” – the very good reason they never married. As she tells her full story, which occupies the bulk of the novella, Father Declan tries to strike a balance between the moral high ground and human compassion.

My verdict: Enda’s initial confession on page 27 is explosive, but the rest of this quiet book doesn’t ever live up to it. I was reminded of Mary Costello’s Academy Street, a more successful short book about an Irish life. 3-star-rating

Favorite passage: “One thing I’ve learned, Father—that in this life it’s best to keep the then and the now and the what’s-to-be as close together in your thoughts as you can. It’s when you let gaps creep in, when you separate out the intervals and dwell on them, that you can’t bear the sorrow.”

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

[143 pages]

13-waysThis starts off as the simple story of J. Mendelssohn, an octogenarian who wakes up on a snowy morning in his New York City apartment, contemplating his past – Lithuanian/Polish ancestry, work as a judge and marriage to Eileen, whom he met as a boy in Dublin – and planning to meet his son at a restaurant for lunch. But all of a sudden it turns into a murder mystery on page 24: “Later the homicide detectives will be surprised…” In 13 sections headed by epigraphs from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann flits through Mendelssohn’s thoughts and flips between the events preceding and immediately following the murder. A late interrogation scene is particularly strong – “unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved.”

My verdict: This is the first I’ve read from McCann, and it’s terrific. He stuffs so much plot and characterization into not many pages. Mendelssohn’s thought life is rich with allusions and wordplay. I was particularly intrigued to read about the autobiographical overlap in the Author’s Note. I haven’t yet read the short stories included in the volume, but for the novella on its own it’s 4-5-star-rating.

 

As We Are Now by May Sarton

[134 pages]

img_0828On the surface this is similar to a novel I reviewed earlier in the month, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. But where spunky Hendrik determines to outwit his care home’s sullen staff, Sarton’s narrator, seventy-six-year-old Caroline Spencer, has given in. A retired high school math teacher, she’s landed in a New England old folks’ home because during her recovery from a heart attack she failed to get along with her brother’s younger wife. She finds kindred spirits in Standish Flint, a tough old farmer, and Reverend Thornhill, but her growing confusion and the home’s pretty appalling conditions drive her to despair.

My verdict: This is enjoyable for the unreliable narrator and the twist ending, but overall it struck me as rather melodramatic. However, I appreciated a lot of Caro’s sentiments. 3-star-rating

Favorite passages: “Am I senile, I wonder? The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it.” & “And what is left of you? A lapis lazuli pin, a faded rose petal, once pink, slipped into the pages of this copybook.”


And two short works of nonfiction:

Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown

[113 pages]

excerptsBrown is a novelist from Seattle. This is an account of her mother’s death from what sounds like stomach cancer. The disease progressed quickly and her mother died at home, under hospice care, in New Mexico in 1997. As the title suggests, the brief thematic chapters are arranged around vocabulary words like “anemia” and “metastasis.” My favorite chapters were about washing: her mother’s habit of reading while taking long baths, and the ways Brown and her sister tried to care for their mother’s disintegrating body, including a plan to prepare the corpse themselves. Clinical descriptions of vomiting alternate with magical thinking to accompany her mother’s hallucinations: “You’re packed, Mom, but all of us aren’t going, just you. But you’ve got everything you need.”

My verdict: Brown covers a lot of emotional ground in a very few pages, but I prefer my medical/bereavement memoirs to have more of a narrative and more detail than “when she died it was not peacefully or easy, it was hard.” 3-star-rating

 

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

[119 pages]

ruinedThis 1996 memoir was sparked by reading a quote from a Chinese Buddhist in a New York Times article: he suggested that reading is dangerous as it imposes others’ ideas on you and doesn’t allow you to use your own mind freely. Schwartz, of course, begs to differ. As a novelist, reading has been her lifeline. She looks back at her childhood reading and her pretentious college student opinions on Franz Kafka and Henry James, and explains that she lets serendipity guide her reading choices nowadays, rather than a strict TBR list: “reading at random – letting desire lead – feels like the most faithful kind.”

My verdict: It’s a bibliomemoir; I should have loved it. Instead I thought it unstructured and thin. There are some great lines dotted through, but I wasn’t very interested in the examples she focuses on. Five pages about a children’s book by Eleanor Farjeon? Yawn! 2-5-star-rating

Favorite passages: “Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.” & “How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself – the task of a lifetime – becomes the answer.”


Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

How do you feel about novellas in general?

Mini Reviews Roundup for the Summer

Here’s a quick look at some of the book reviews I’ve had published elsewhere on the web over the past few months, with a taster so you can decide whether to read more by clicking on the link. These are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.


The Bookbag

Triotrio by Sue Gee: Sue Gee’s tenth novel is a sensitive portrait of life’s transience and the things that give us purpose. In the late 1930s, a widowed history teacher in Northumberland finds a new lease on life when he falls for one of the members of a local trio of musicians. My favorite passages of the book are descriptive ones, often comprised of short, evocative phrases; I also loved the banter between the musicians. The novel has a reasonably simple plot. We delve into the past to discover each main character’s backstory and some unexpected romantic entanglements, but in the 1930s storyline there aren’t a lot of subplots to distract from the main action. I was reminded in places of Downton Abbey: the grand hall and its village surroundings, the build-up to war, the characters you come to love and cheer for. [Thanks to Elle for piquing my interest in this one.]

How to Set a Fire and Whyhow to set a fire by Jesse Ball: Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. She’s like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or impressing me with her wisdom. Although this is his sixth novel, I hadn’t heard much about Jesse Ball prior to picking it up. His skill at creating the interior world of a troubled 14-year-old girl leads me to believe that the rest of his work would be well worth a look.


BookBrowse

[Non-subscribers can read excerpts of my reviews]

Imagine Me Goneimagine me by Adam Haslett: Mental illness plagues two generations of an Anglo-American family in Haslett’s moving second novel. Narration duties are split between the five members: father John, mother Margaret, and siblings Alec, Michael, and Celia. By giving each main character a first-person voice, Haslett offers readers a full picture of how mental illness takes a toll not only on sufferers but also on those who love and care for them. John’s descriptions of what mental illness is like are among the most striking passages in the book. Michael’s sections are wonderfully humorous, a nice counterbalance to some of the aching sadness. The multiple points of view fit together beautifully in this four-decade family symphony, although I sometimes felt that Celia was one main character too many – her story doesn’t contribute very much to the whole. A powerful read for fans of family stories.

Dinner with Edwarddinner with edward by Isabel Vincent: In this heartwarming memoir, a journalist tells how friendship with an elderly gentleman rekindled her appetite for life. New to NYC and with a faltering marriage, Isabel received an unusual request from her friend Valerie: Would she look in on Valerie’s father, Edward? In his nineties, he’d recently been widowed and Valerie was worried about him losing the will to live. If he could have a guest to cook for and entertain, it might give him a new sense of purpose. As it turned out, it was a transformative friendship for the author as much as for Edward. Each chapter opens with a mouth-watering menu. Although Edward is now deceased, when we see him for the final time, he is still alive and well. This is a nice way to leave things – rather than with a funeral, which might have altered the overall tone.


Nudge

Rubyruby by Cynthia Bond: When Ruby Bell returns to Liberty Township, her east Texas hometown, in 1964, her fellow black folk turn her into a victim of derision. The churchgoing men of the town get the idea that they can use her body however they want. In part this is because her mental health is deteriorating, and the more she struggles to stifle traumatic memories the stranger she acts. The only one who continues to see Ruby as a human being rather than a demon or a subhuman object is Ephram Jennings. I found their relationship, reminiscent of that between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, very touching. The novel moves fluidly between the past and present to give all of the central characters’ backstories – most of them unremittingly tragic. As difficult as some of the later scenes are to take, you feel entranced into continuing because of the touches of magic realism. Out of the darkness Bond weaves enchanting language and scenes. I highly recommend this to fans of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

The Hatred of Poetryhatred of poetry by Ben Lerner: This fluid essay asks how poetry navigates between the personal and the universal. Socrates famously wanted to ban poets, fearing poetry might be turned to revolutionary purposes. Lerner wonders whether poetry still has a political role. Whitman’s goal was to create a new American verse style. But was it realistic for him to think that he could speak for everyone? The same might be asked about the poets who read at presidential inaugurations. Can different races and genders speak to and for each other, or is it only white males who are assumed to be able to pronounce on humanity’s behalf? Those are some of the questions addressed in this conversational yet unabashedly highbrow essay. Lerner’s points of reference range from Keats and Dickinson to Claudia Rankine, with ample quotations and astute commentary.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Before the Fallbefore the fall by Noah Hawley: The key is in the title: perhaps playing on the theological implications of “the Fall” and Scott and JJ’s “salvation” from a plane crash, the novel toggles between build-up and aftermath. Disasters bring disparate people together to make superb fictional setups. Crucially, Hawley doesn’t make the mistake of conflating characters under easy labels like “victims” and “survivors.” Instead, he renders them all individuals with complete backstories. Some of their potted histories are relevant, while others throw up red herrings in the ensuing enquiry. Readers’ task is to weigh up what is happenstance and what is destiny. This lies somewhere on the continuum between crime and literary fiction; if it’s not quite Jonathan Franzen, nor is it Robert Ludlum. It’s a pretty much ideal summer vacation read – though you might think twice about taking it on a plane.