Thanks to the Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that is also going around on BookTube. Laura F. specifically tagged me. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try? For my examples I’ve chosen books I read this year or last year.
- How do you define literary fiction?
My inclination is to adapt one of Italo Calvino’s definitions of a classic (recapped here): a book that will never finish saying all it has to say. In other words, a perennially relevant work that speaks to the human condition. Obviously, not all literary fiction can live up to that standard; some will inevitably feel dated due to its setting, slang, technology, and so on. But at its best, literary fiction voices, and makes an attempt at answering, one or more of life’s biggest questions. As Laura F. says, this generally means that it lends itself to discussion and (re)interpretation. I know I can be an awful snob about genre fiction, but I avoid crime, science fiction, etc. because I find these genres less ‘serious’ and thus less worthwhile than literary fiction.
- Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study.
The first novel that comes to mind here is The Poisonwood Bible, which would be a suitable answer for several of these categories but on rereading struck me most for how well developed its five main characters are. Barbara Kingsolver does an impressive job of distinguishing these multiple narrators from each other based on how they speak/write.
- Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
One of the fiction highlights of 2019 so far for me is Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. It stands out from the autofiction field due to its placement of words. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even in the more conventional sections, a lack of punctuation creates a breathless, run-on pace.
- Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
In The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff’s debut novel, Willie Upton is back in her hometown in upstate New York, partway through a PhD and pregnant by her married professor. We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge, is written entirely in verse and narrated in dialect by an unlearned servant from a cloth mill town in Gloucestershire. With unemployment rising amid the clamor for universal male suffrage, the scene is set for a climactic clash between the common people and the landowning class.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons.
- Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a rare sci-fi novel that I loved wholeheartedly. Set on a near-future Jesuit mission to the two alien species on a distant planet, it is about the possibility of believing in God, and doing good works in His name, when suffering seems to be the only result. (See also: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.)
- What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
I’ve always felt that Maggie O’Farrell expertly straddles the line between literary and women’s fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny. Her best is The Hand that First Held Mine, but everything I’ve read by her is wonderful. I’d happily read more books like hers. (Expectation by Anna Hope was slightly less successful.)
This historical novel set in Edinburgh in 1847 has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve come across in a while:
That immediately sets the tone: realistic, sly, and somewhat seedy. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s borrowed from Samuel Butler’s gloomy 1903 meditation on sin and salvation in several generations of a Victorian family. I remember trudging through it on a weekend break to Strasbourg during my year abroad.
Parry (a pseudonym for husband–wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman) uses the allusion to highlight the hidden sins of the Victorian period and hint at the fleshy concerns of their book, which contains somewhat gruesome scenes of childbirth and surgery. Ether and chloroform were recent introductions and many were still apprehensive about them or even opposed to their use on religious grounds, as Haetzman, a consultant anesthetist, learned while researching for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.
Into this milieu enters Will Raven, the new apprentice to Dr. Simpson, a professor of midwifery. Will is troubled by the recent loss of his friend Evie Lawson, the dead prostitute of the first paragraph, and wonders if she could have been poisoned by some bad moonshine. Only as he hears rumors about a local abortionist – no better than a serial killer – who’s been giving women quack pills and potions, followed by rudimentary operations that leave them to die of peritonitis, does he begin to wonder if Evie could have been pregnant when she died.
The novel peppers in lots of period slang and details about homeopathy, phrenology and early photography. Best of all, it has a surprise heroine: the Simpsons’ maid, Sarah Fisher, who keeps shaming Will with her practical medical know-how and ends up being something of a sidekick in his investigations. She wants to work as a druggist’s assistant, but the druggist insists that only a man can do the job. Dr. Simpson recognizes that the housemaid’s role is rather a waste of Sarah’s talents and expresses his hope that she’ll seek to be part of a widespread change for women.
The Way of All Flesh is sure to appeal to readers of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Steven Price’s By Gaslight. It’s not quite as rewarding as the former, but the length and style make it significantly more engaging than the latter. It also serves as a good fictional companion to Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art; for that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist.
“That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.”
“‘Simpson likes to think of medicine as more than pure science,’ [Raven] countered. ‘There must also be empathy, concern, a human connection.’ ‘I suggest that both elements are required,’ offered Henry. ‘Scientific principles married to creativity. Science and art.’ If it is an art, it is at times a dark one, Raven thought, though he chose to keep this observation to himself.”
The Way of All Flesh comes out today, August 30th, in the UK. It was published in the States by HarperCollins on the 28th. My thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy for review.
Wigtown is tucked away in the southwest corner of Scotland in Galloway, a region that doesn’t draw too many tourists. It did remind us a lot of Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales, what with the dry-stone walls, rolling green hills with more imposing mountains behind, sheep in the fields, and goodly number of bookshops. Wigtown is a sleepier place – it’s really just one main street and square – and has fewer bookshops and eateries overall, but the shops it does have are mainly large and inviting, and several are lovely bookshops-cum-cafés where you can pause for tea/coffee and cake before continuing with your book browsing. It rained for much of our trip and even snowed on a couple of brief occasions, but we got one day of very good weather and made the best of all the rest.
Day 1, Monday the 2nd: Six-plus hours of driving, partially in the sleet and snow, saw us arriving to our spacious and comfortable B&B by 6 p.m., giving us an hour to freshen up before dinner in the dining room. Cullen skink (leek and potato soup with chunks of smoked haddock); pork chops in a mustard cream sauce with roast parsnips, boiled potatoes and carrots, and mashed swede (aka rutabaga); and chocolate cake with gingerbread sauce. All delicious!
Day 2, Tuesday the 3rd: Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, accompanied by plenteous tea and toast. Off in the drizzle to see some local sites: Torhouse stone circle and Crook of Baldoon RSPB bird reserve. Nice sightings of whooper swans, pink-footed geese and lapwings, and a panoramic view of Wigtown across the way. Back to the car in the steady rain to find that we had a flat tire. Thanks to our foot pump, we got back to the W. Barclay garage in town, where they ordered a new tire and fitted the spare wheel. In the afternoon we drove to the Isle of Whithorn to see the 13th-century St. Ninian’s Chapel ruins and St. Ninian’s Cave. In the evening we went to Craft for beer/cider and the weekly acoustic music night, which, alas, just ended up being two old guys playing Americana songs on guitars.
Today’s book shopping: Glaisnock Café, where we also stopped for coffee and a tasty slice of courgette and avocado cake; The Open Book (run by Airbnb customers – this week it was Maureen from Pennsylvania and her niece Rebecca from Switzerland; they’d booked the experience two years ago, and the wait is now up to three years); the Wigtown Community shop (a charity shop); and browsing at Old Bank Books and Byre Books.
Day 3, Wednesday the 4th: Vegetarian ‘full Scottish’ cooked breakfast to fuel us for a rainy day of bookshops and explorations further afield. 12 p.m.: return trip to the garage to have our tire fitted. All the staff were so friendly and pleasant. They seemed delighted to see tourists around, and were interested in where we came from and what we were finding to do in the area. Mr. Barclay himself had one of the thickest Scottish accents I’ve ever heard, but I managed to decipher that he thinks of Galloway as “the next best place to heaven,” despite the weather. We spotted a local ‘celebrity’, Ben of the Bookshop Band, in the Co-op, but didn’t say hello as he was trying to pay for his shopping and had the baby in tow.
In the afternoon we ventured to Newton Stewart, the nearest big town, to buy petrol, picnic supper food, and another secondhand book at the community shop there. We retreated from the sudden snow for a scrumptious dinner of smoked salmon, black pudding and haggis (all of them battered and fried, with chips!) at a diner-like smokehouse. Back in Wigtown, we got a mainly dry evening to do the Martyrs’ Walk. In 1685 two Covenanters (Scottish reformers who broke from Charles I’s Anglican Church), Margaret McLachlan, 63, and Margaret Wilson, 18, were tied to stakes on the mud flats and allowed to drown in the rising tide.
Today’s book shopping: THE BOOK SHOP. I’ve meant to visit ever since I read Jessica Fox’s memoir, Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, in February 2013. Previously based in California, Fox decided on a whim to visit a bookshop in Scotland and ended up here at the country’s largest. She promptly fell in love with the bookshop owner and with Wigtown itself; though she and Shaun Bythell are no longer an item, she has been a major mover and shaker in the town, playing a role in the annual festival and establishing The Open Book.
The Book Shop is a wonderfully rambling place with lots of nooks and crannies housing all sorts of categories. Look out for the shot and mounted Kindle, the Festival bed, the stuffed badger, a scroll of bookseller’s rules, Captain the cat, and a display of Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. Together we found £35 worth of books we wanted to buy – whew! – thanks to my husband’s niche nature books, and had a nice chat with the man himself at the till. He signed my book, commiserated with us about the weather and our trip to see “Willie” (Barclay), and gave us tips for what to see locally. You’d hardly believe he’s the same curmudgeon who wrote the book. Now that I’ve been to the town and the shop, it’s time for me to start rereading it.
We also perused the smallish but very nice selection at Beltie Books, where we made a welcome stop for a cappuccino and some cookies, and I bought a cut-price new book at the Festival Shop. (They stock books by festival speakers plus a curated selection of new releases.)
Day 4, Thursday the 5th: SUNSHINE, at last! After hearty omelettes, we headed to the hill that overlooks the town to get the best views of the week. On to Monreith for a charming coastal walk up to the Gavin Maxwell monument of a bronze otter. (He wrote Ring of Bright Water, which my husband brought along to read on our trip.) After a lunch stop back in town, it was out to the red kite feeding station about 40 minutes away – I came for the books; my husband came for the red kites. Though they’re common enough in our part of Berkshire, he was keen to see the site of another recent reintroduction. Wales also has a feeding station we visited some years ago, and on both occasions seeing dozens of birds swoop down for meat was quite the spectacle – though here you sit on an open porch, even closer to the action. We did a few other short walks in the area, finishing off with a sunset sit in Wigtown’s bird hide.
Today’s book shopping: ReadingLasses calls itself Britain’s only women’s bookshop. They stock Persephone Books direct from Bloomsbury, and they also have a large selection of secondhand books. This is the best place to go in town for a light meal and a snack. We had delicious homemade soup with soda bread for an early lunch, followed by coffee and tiffin. I bought a novel by Candia McWilliam, a Scottish author I’ve only read nonfiction by before.
At Curly Tale Books, the children’s bookshop next-door to The Book Shop, we bought a picture book about the local ‘belted’ Galloway cows for our niece. We didn’t realize the shop owner is also the author! She offered to sign the book for us, but we decided that a five-year-old wouldn’t appreciate it enough.
Day 5, Friday the 6th: Full Scottish breakfast to see us on our way, and a farewell to the two B&B cats, including the fluffiest cat on earth. To break up the rather arduous journey, we stopped early on at the Cairn Holy stone circle/tomb and the Cream o’ Galloway farm shop for cheese and ice cream. Home at 7:30 p.m. to find something from the freezer for dinner, unpack and shelve all these new books.
Total acquisitions: 13 books for me, 7 books for my husband, 3 books for gifts
Wigtown is more than twice as far away as Hay is for us, so we’re less likely to go back. (It’s also a tough place to find a decent evening meal.) However, I’d like to think that life will take me back to Wigtown someday, perhaps for the Festival, or for a stay at The Open Book – though I’d have to start planning ahead to 2021!
What I read:
Bits of lots of books I had on the go, but mostly a few vaguely appropriate titles:
Under the Skin by Michel Faber was the perfect book for reading on rainy Scottish highways. I’m so glad I decided at the last minute to bring it. Isserley drives along Highland roads picking up hitchhikers – but only the hunky males – to take back to her farm near the Moray Firth. It’s likely that you already know the setup of this even if you haven’t read it, perhaps from the buzz around the 2013 film version starring Scarlett Johansson. It must have been so difficult for the first reviewers and interviewers to discuss the book without spoilers back in 2000. David Mitchell, in his introduction to my Canons series reprint, does an admirable job of suggesting the eeriness of the contents without giving anything significant away.
Shelve this under science fiction, though it veers towards horror and then becomes a telling allegory. I knew the basic plot beforehand, but there were still some surprises awaiting me, and I was impressed with how Faber pulled it all off. Keep an eye open for how he uses the word “human.” This has a lot to say about compassion and dignity, and how despite our differences we are fundamentally the same “under the skin.”
An atmospheric line: “The fields all around her house were shrouded in snow, with patches of dark earth poking through here and there as if the world were a rich fruit cake under cream.”
Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller by Whitney Brown: For a TLS review. Brown, from South Carolina, trained as a dry-stone waller in Wales (where she fell in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her), but we saw plenty such walls in Scotland too. As an expat I could relate to her feeling of being split between two countries. (Releases May 17th.)
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult. by Rebecca Stott: I read the first two-fifths or so, mostly in the car and over our leisurely B&B breakfasts. One branch of Stott’s Exclusive Brethren family came from Eyemouth, a Scottish fishing village. A family memoir, a bereavement memoir, a theological theme: this brings together a lot of my favorite things. And it won last year’s Costa Biography Award, so you know it’s got to be good.
I also started two books by Scottish novelists, The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Accidental by Ali Smith – though I don’t know if I’ll make it through the latter.
April will be a busy month on the blog what with four Wellcome Book Prize shortlist reviews plus posts on our shadow panel decision and the awards ceremony, three blog tours within a week, and various other review books jostling for my attention.
April 5th seems to be a huge day for new releases. I own four print books that are all coming out on that day; alas, the only one I’ve been able to start is Elizabeth J. Church’s All the Beautiful Girls, for an upcoming Shiny New Books review. I’m approaching the one-quarter point. The others may well have to wait for a quieter time.
I started another April 5th release on my Kindle a couple of weeks ago, Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam. It’s about a missionary couple whose lives are disrupted by the return of an older missionary. I was thinking of abandoning it until I got to the last line of the prologue, which threw in a pretty great twist. So maybe I’ll go back to it.
For now, I can recommend the one April 5th release I actually managed to finish:
Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce
If you loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I have just the book for you: another feel-good World War II-set novel with characters you’ll cheer for. December 1940, London: Twenty-two-year-old Emmeline Lake dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent, but for now she’ll start by typing up the letters submitted to Henrietta Bird’s advice column in Woman’s Friend. All too quickly, though, the job feels too small for Emmy. Mrs. Bird refuses to print letters on Unpleasant subjects, which could include anything from an inappropriate crush to anxiety. She thinks cowardly readers bring their troubles on themselves and need to buck up instead of looking to others for help. But Emmy can’t bear to throw hurting people’s missives away. Perhaps she could send some advice of her own?
Emmy shares a flat with her best friend Bunty, and they each have a fiancé who is part of the war effort. As a volunteer for the Fire Brigade, Emmy sees the effects of Luftwaffe bombings up close. But it’s only after heartache hits home for both of these young women that they really understand how much is at stake in the war. The novel got a little melodramatic for me in its last quarter, but it’s overall a charming “Keep Calm and Carry On” and Stick It to Hitler-style story that never strays far from jollity for too long.
Other readalikes: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Some favorite lines:
“I told myself we could all get blown up by tomorrow so we might just as well enjoy ourselves.”
“Granny didn’t spend half her life chaining herself to railings for today’s woman to moon around waiting for some chap to look after her.”
On Monday we’re off to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town, for five days. Though we’ve been to Hay-on-Wye, Wales six times, we’ve never been to Wigtown despite meaning to for years. When I read Shaun Bythell’s Wigtown bookselling memoir last autumn, it felt like a sign that it was time. Did you see his The Diary of a Bookseller has been described in French as le quotidien d’un libraire misanthrope écossais (literally, “the daily life of a misanthropic Scottish bookseller”)?
That’s too good! If only it were the official French title. I will of course be visiting his shop, and asking for a signature on my proof copy if I can pluck up the nerve. We’ll strive to be model customers lest we become the subject of a grumpy Tweet or Facebook post.
Coals to Newcastle and all that, but here’s the pile I’ve packed for Wigtown.
This is mostly for the six-hour car rides there and back. During the days we’ll be busy with outings to the surrounding countryside plus book shopping and café visits, but I daresay there will be some time for reading at the B&B in the afternoons and evenings.
For once I haven’t scoured my shelves for place-appropriate books; I don’t think I own any particularly Scottish reads, unless Michel Faber’s Under the Skin counts (ah wait, I also have an Ali Smith novel on the shelf).
Anyway, this time I’ve really just put together a pile of books I’ve been wanting to read for ages. The only ‘work’-related one is Between Stone and Sky, for a TLS review; otherwise I’m giving myself from Easter through the 6th off. I’m not even sure I’ll take my Kindle, except as a backup – that kind of thing could get you (or, rather, your Kindle) shot in this town. If I do, I’ll be sure to leave it behind in the B&B room or the glove box when we go into town for the day!
What are you up to in April?
My 2017 goal of reading one book of 500+ pages per month has been a mixed success. With the best doorstoppers the pages fly by and you enjoy every minute spent in a fictional world. From this past year Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fits that bill, and a couple of novels I read years ago on holidays also come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. But then there are the books that feel like they’ll never end and you have to drag yourself through page by page.
Unfortunately, Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, a Victorian cat-and-mouse mystery, tended more towards the latter group for me. Like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it has the kernel of a fascinating story but piles up the words unnecessarily. Between July and August I read the first 300 pages and then skimmed the rest (in total the paperback has 731 small-type pages). This is the story of William Pinkerton, a 39-year-old Civil War veteran and private investigator from Chicago who comes to London in 1885 to chase up a name from his father’s files: Edward Shade. His best lead comes to nothing when Charlotte Reckitt evades him and turns up as a set of dismembered remains in the Thames. Keeping in mind the rudimentary state of forensics, though, there’s some uncertainty about the corpse’s identity.
The other central character in this drama is Adam Foole, a master thief. Half Indian and half English, he has violet eyes and travels in the company of Molly, a young pickpocket he passes off as his daughter, and Japheth Fludd, a vegetarian giant just out of prison. Foole was Charlotte’s lover ten years ago in South Africa, where they together pulled off a legendary diamond heist. Now he’s traveling back to England: she’s requested his help with a job as she knows she’s being tailed by a detective. The remaining cast is large and Dickensian: a medium and her lawyer brother, Charlotte’s imprisoned uncle, sewer dwellers, an opium dealer, and so on. Settings include a rare goods emporium, a Miss Havisham-type lonely manor house, the Record Office at Chancery Lane, and plenty of shabby garrets.
What I most enjoyed about the book was the restless, outlaw spirit of both main characters, but particularly Pinkerton. His troubled relationship with his father, in whose footsteps he’s following as a detective, is especially poignant: “William feared him and loved him and loathed him every day of his life yet too not a day passed that he did not want to be him.”
Price’s style is not what you’d generally expect of a Victorian pastiche. He uses no speech marks and his punctuation is non-standard, with lots of incomplete or run-in sentences like the one above. The critics’ blurbs liken By Gaslight to William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, apt comparisons that tell you just how unusual a hybrid it is.
I liked Price’s writing and starting around page 150 found the book truly gripping for a time, but extended flashbacks to Pinkerton and Foole’s earlier years really drag the story down, taking away from the suspense of the hunt. Meanwhile, the two major twists aren’t confirmed until over halfway through, but are hinted at so early that the watchful reader will know what’s going on long before the supposedly shrewd Pinkerton does. The salient facts about both characters’ past might have been conveyed in one short chapter each and the 1885 plot streamlined to make a taut novel of less than half the length.
There are many reasons to admire this Canadian novelist’s achievement, but whether it’s a reading experience you’d enjoy is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
A favorite passage:
There is in every life a shadow of the possible, she said to him. The almost and the might have been. There are the histories that never were. We imagine we are keeping our accounts but what we are really saying is, I was here, I was real, this did happen once. It happened.
By Gaslight was first published in the UK by Oneworld in September 2016. My thanks to Margot Weale for sending a free paperback for review.
Fun trivia: Steven Price is married to Esi Edugyan, author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Half Blood Blues.
I’m always interested to find out how people who aren’t regular followers catch wind of my blog. The web searches documented in my WordPress statistics are often bizarre, but do point to what have been some of my most enduringly popular posts: reviews of The First Bad Man, The Girl Who Slept with God, and The Essex Serpent; and write-ups of events with Diana Athill and Michel Faber. I also get a fair number of searches for Ann Kidd Taylor, whose two books I’ve featured at different points.
Here are some of the more interesting results from the last six months or so. My favorite search of all may well be “underwhelmed by ferrante”! (Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout.)
October 19: the undiscovered islands malachy tallack, the first bad man, ann kidd taylor wedding
October 21: prose/poetry about autumn
November 2: ann kidd taylor, irmina barbara yelin, the first bad man summary, diana athill on molly keane
November 6: michel faber poems, essex serpent as byatt, book summary of the girl who slept with gid byval brelinski
November 17: book cycle, james lasdun, novel the girl who slept with god
November 25: john bradshaw the lion in the living room, bibliotherapy open courses the school of life, barbara yelin irmina, 2016 best prose poem extracts
December 5: seal morning, paul evans field notes from the edge, at the existentialist café: freedom, being, and apricot cocktails with jean-paul sartre, simone de beauvoir, albert camus, marti, read how many books at once
December 23: midwinter novel melrose, underwhelmed by ferrante
January 6: charlotte bronte handwriting, hundred year old man and john irving
January 12: memorable prose on looking forward, felicity Trotman
January 24: patient memoirs, poirot graphic novel, first bad man review, he came beck why? love poems
January 26: reading discussion essex serpent, elena ferrante my brilliant friend dislike
February 3: what are chimamanda’s novels transkated to films, ann kidd taylor, shannon leone fowler, i read war and peace and liked it
February 15: “how to make a french family” “review”, book that literally changed my life, the essex serpent summary
March 13: my darling detective howard norman, the essex serpent book club questions, the first bad man summary
March 22: the doll’s alphabet, joslin linder genetic disorders
March 31: detor, louisa young michel faber
May 7: the essex serpent plot, rebecca foster writer, book about cats, gauguin the other world dori fabrizio
Here are three enjoyable novels due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are debuts, while the third is by an author I’ve had good luck with before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
(Coming on March 7th from Little, Brown and Company [USA] and March 9th from Sceptre [UK])
Call this a cross between Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber). In April 2018 Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka is launched to investigate cosmic dust storm “Chopra,” but realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. Amid the drudgery of daily life onboard the JanHus1 space shuttle, he makes a friend: a giant, alien spider he names Hanuš. Jakub has the sense that Hanuš is sifting through his memories, drawing out the central tragedies that form his motivation for going to space, including the shame and persecution that resulted from his father being a Party loyalist and member of the Secret Police prior to the Velvet Revolution.
This debut novel is a terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space. There is much to enjoy: Jakub’s sometimes baroque narrative voice (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?”) – all the more impressive because Jaroslav Kalfař is in his late twenties and has only spoken English for about 13 years; the mixture of countryside rituals and the bustle of Prague; and the uncertainty about whether Jakub has a viable future, with or without his wife Lenka. The book goes downhill in Part Two and doesn’t quite pull everything together before its end. However, it’s still one of the best debuts I’ve encountered in recent years, and I’ll be eager to see what Kalfař will come up with next.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
(Coming on March 14th from Penguin [USA] and June 1st from Jonathan Cape [UK])
An odd but very funny anti-Bildungsroman. This is Selin Hanim’s account of her freshman year at Harvard (circa 1995) and the summer of European travel that follows. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, she wants to become a writer, but even as she minutely records every happening and thought she doubts the point of it. In Russian and linguistics classes, in interactions with her roommates and her Serbian friend Svetlana, and in her growing obsession with Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary, she includes a Knausgaardian amount of mundane detail yet always remains at an emotional distance from events. The tone is so very deadpan that you may never warm to Selin. However, it feels appropriate for what the novel is attempting: a commentary on the difficulty of having real, meaningful conversations when language breakdown is rife.
Once again Batuman has borrowed a Dostoevsky title (her 2010 memoir was called The Possessed). I suspect her debut novel is generally indebted to Eastern European literature in the randomness of the incidents and the way they are bluntly recounted rather than explained. This can be problematic for the story line: it feels like things keep happening that serve no purpose in the grander scheme. It’s as if Batuman is subverting the whole idea of a simple coming-of-age trajectory. At the same time, she convincingly captures what it’s like to be young and confused. This reminded me of my college and study abroad experience; that familiarity plus the off-the-wall humor kept me reading.
(On a plane) “I opened the foil lid and looked at the American meal. I couldn’t tell what it was. The man in the seat ahead of me started tossing and turning. His pillow fell into my dessert. The pink whipped foam formed meaningful-looking patterns on the white fabric. I saw a bird—that meant travel.”
“Spiderwebs attached themselves, like long trails of agglutinative suffixes, onto our arms and faces.”
My Darling Detective by Howard Norman
(Coming on March 28th from Houghton Mifflin)
When Jacob Rigolet’s mother Nora, former head of Halifax Free Library, throws ink on a photograph during an art auction in 1977, it sparks an unusual quest into his past. Jacob’s fiancee Martha Crauchet, the detective of the title, learns two startling facts from Nora’s police file: Jacob was born in the Halifax library; and Bernard Rigolet had been serving overseas for more than a year before his birth in 1945, so can’t be his father. Three years ago Nora’s obsession with World War II led to a breakdown she calls her “fall from grace”; she’s been confined to a rest home ever since. As Jacob gives up being an art buyer to attend library school, Martha gets involved in a cold case that involves his real father. The film noir atmosphere is enhanced by a hardboiled detective radio program he and Martha are hooked on: set in the year of Jacob’s birth, Detective Levy Detects keeps overlapping with real life.
This offbeat mystery reminded me of The World According to Garp. I could see it working as a low-budget indie movie or TV special. I loved how climactic things kept happening at the library, and enjoyed glimpses of bad borrower behavior: selling the library’s art books to a secondhand bookstore and a 105-year overdue loan found in someone’s attic. I have a suspicion this novel won’t linger long in my mind, but it was a fun weekend read. (Historical note: one character’s mother was killed in the Halifax Explosion.)
Have you read any March releases you would recommend?
Back in May I surveyed a few months’ worth of the (often very odd) web searches that led people to my blog. In the past four and a half months the search terms have been more normal in that they generally relate to books or authors I’ve covered. However, I do hope I haven’t disappointed some searchers: after all, I don’t reveal the exact location of the croft in Seal Morning, instruct readers in how to pronounce ‘Athill’, or give any details about Ann Kidd Taylor’s wedding!
In any case, it’s always interesting to see what people were looking up – Oliver Balch’s Under the Tump, Michel Faber’s Undying, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and various graphic novels were popular topics – and I reckon I count among the “bookish cat people” of the first search. (Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout this list!)
May 26: bookish cat people, oliver balch under the tump
May 31: a book review of any book about 140-160 words, in my next life i want to be a cat. to sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. to sit around licking my ass., under the tump by oliver balch reviews
June 25: irmina yelin, george watsky bipolar
July 2: michel faber undying goodreads, the first bad man book miranda july plot
July 16: she’s my only father’s daughter, essex serpent, sue gee, hay on wye
July 21: the ghost of nelly burdons beck
August 5: correct pronunciation of athill in diana athill s name
August 11: the essex serpent usa release
August 24: ann kidd taylor wedding
August 25: paintings with a woman reading a book
August 29: michel faber undying review, to the bright edge of the world interview
September 8: agatha christie graphic novel, house of hawthorne
September 13: irmina by barbara yellen
September 19: paulette bates
September 21: bbc miniseris vs book war and peace
September 26: vincent van gogh graphic novel
September 28: reviews on my son my sonby howard spring
September 30: seal morning location of croft
October 3: john pritchard_something more
We spent a few days last week in Cambridge, England for New Networks for Nature’s interdisciplinary “Nature Matters” conference, this year on the theme of “In Touch with the Wild.” This is the fourth year my husband (a biologist with the University of Reading) has participated, and the third year in a row that I’ve attended for a day. While other years the gathering has been in the small town of Stamford, this year’s temporary move to Cambridge gave us the impetus to finally explore this world-famous city for the first time.
Arriving later than we meant to on a Thursday evening, checking into our noisy hostel and then having to dash out in time for my husband to make the first event (and making a futile attempt to find an open coffee shop where I could while away a couple hours)…this all meant our first impression of the city was not great. However, cheap, terrific Chinese street food on Friday after the conference, followed by a delicious glass of cider in a pub and a sunny day for exploring the bustling city center on Saturday created a more favorable overall feeling.
Last year’s conference highlights for me were a debate about nature’s economic value and a panel on the purpose of nature poetry. This year’s sessions tackled personal connection with nature, rewilding (setting aside tracts of land for wilderness and reintroducing native species that have been driven out or gone locally extinct, such as wolves and wild boar), and coping with a sense of loss. With everyone from geographers to a singer and a painter involved on the day I attended, the conference succeeded in drawing in different fields from the sciences and the arts to provide commentary on ways we might reconnect with nature.
The day’s first event brought together author William Fiennes, poet Alison Brackenbury, and Cambridge psychologist Laurie Parma. Fiennes spoke about writing an introduction to John Fowles’s long, curmudgeonly essay The Tree. Whereas Fowles denigrates Linnaeus, Fiennes thinks of him as a hero; like Adam in the Bible, Linnaeus knew the value of naming things. “In order to care about something, we first have to notice it,” Fiennes insisted; for him the noticing began when he was a child going round the garden with his father and learning plant names. Rather than thinking of names as a control mechanism, he suggested they can be a first step in “granting [a species] a place in your sensorium.”
Brackenbury, who comes from four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, recited from memory seven poems from her latest collection, Skies, several of which reflect on species’ extinctions or comebacks. “Look at them well before they go” is the broadly applicable piece of advice that closes “The Elms.” I especially liked one poem about a starling’s many songs.
Parma relayed the scientific evidence for green spaces mitigating stress and promoting happiness. At an event like this there’s an inevitable feeling that the speakers are preaching to the choir: we already know the personal value of time in nature, as well as the scale of environmental degradation. Still, this came home afresh in the following session as Dr. Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International spoke about the situation in Hawaii, where deforestation, non-native mosquitoes and other invasive animals are rapidly driving native birds to extinction. Photojournalist Toby Smith then questioned whether the nature photographer’s role should be to chronicle nature’s degradation or to celebrate what’s left. Many speakers acknowledged the difficult balance between mourning losses and applauding successes.
I spent most of Saturday scouring Cambridge’s charity shops and made out like a bandit, coming away with 15 books for £15.39. If you happen to find yourself in Cambridge and have seen all you need to of the colleges and the river (it doesn’t take very long), I can recommend Burleigh Street for charity shops but also Mill Road, a slightly more off-the-beaten-path student area of ethnic eateries and cheap stores. Books for Amnesty has an incredible selection; I took advantage of a couple James Lasdun books from their £1 poetry shelf. Best of all was the Salvation Army store, where all books were either 40 or 70 pence. I amassed a huge pile and then put half of it back when I remembered I would have to carry these books the mile or so back into town and then haul them around the whole rest of the day. I also did well at RSPCA’s two shops, one a dedicated bookshop on Mill Road.
Cambridge is certainly rich in secondhand book buying opportunities. Other shops I browsed but didn’t buy from included G. David Books and the tiny Sarah Key Books (also known as “The Haunted Bookshop” – I’d love to know why! – and included on a Guardian list of 10 of the best secondhand bookstores), both on St. Edward’s Passage, and the multi-floored emporium Heffers on St. John’s Street, which has a great selection of board games and gift items as well as new and used books.
As a literary destination, Cambridge left a bit to be desired, though. There weren’t any literary graves for me to find, nor any notable houses or statues. Many of the college’s famous alumni are known for work in other fields. There’s Newton, Darwin and Hawking in the sciences, for instance – they all appear in this mural in the hostel dining room. Plenty of political figures attended, as well as lots of living authors (Wikipedia has an extensive list; the hostel wall featured Zadie Smith as a fairly recent example of a literary alumna).
So, overall, a nice enough city for a day trip but not somewhere you need to stay much longer. Granted, it was outside of term time so King’s College wasn’t running its usual chapel services, and I never did make it out to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Still, I reckon you’ll find much more to see and do in Oxford, a city I’ve visited again and again ever since my undergraduate study abroad days took me there for weekly theology tutorials.
Your thoughts (on new cities, connecting with nature and secondhand book shopping) are always welcome!
On Tuesday night I had the chance to see Michel Faber in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles bookstore in London. The topic was grief in literature, and specifically Faber’s book of poems in honor of his late wife, Undying: A Love Story (which I reviewed here in July). Faber had always written occasional poems, he said, “sort of kind of clever” stuff that he would have taken little note of if he encountered it from another author; the only really good ones, he thought, were about illness, based on his time as a nurse. So when there came this huge uprising of poems about Eva’s last illness, he felt they were a more appropriate way of commemorating her life than a novelistic narrative.
Rentzenbrink mentioned two things that particularly struck her: how Eva emerges in the fullness of her personality in the course of these poems, and the fact that the book is not angry. Faber explained that Eva herself was not angry. She did not think of multiple myeloma as her enemy and had no illusions about ‘beating’ cancer; instead, she just tried to achieve the best quality of life and the longest lifespan possible. In fact, she found cancer interesting, Faber recalled: she researched it as much as she could and followed its course with a certain curiosity. He contrasted her experience with that of an acquaintance in the Scottish Highlands who had the same disease and wanted to know nothing about it, leaving it all in the hands of her doctors. Faber believes this ignorance shortened their friend’s life unnecessarily.
Making sure that Eva came through as a real person in the poems was a struggle, Faber confessed. To start with his editors at Canongate, many of whom knew Eva, were frustrated that Undying was mercilessly medical, describing the process and aftermath of cancer treatment. A few poems, then, he wrote as a direct response to that criticism, almost as if ‘on commission’, he said, to infuse the book with more of Eva’s personality.
Only two of the poems were written while Eva was still alive, Faber noted. One was “Nipples,” written at her bedside just 10 days before her death. Eva had dealt with the pain and indignity of her illness admirably, but plasmacytomas – big purple welts all over her skin – truly broke her spirit, he revealed. His poem is a strangely erotic take on these blemishes: “Excited peaks of plasma. … Your flesh is riotous with the pleasure / of predatory cells.”
There’s irony there, and a certain dark humor in many of the rest. “There are so many absurdities when a body is breaking down spectacularly,” Faber said. And yet the last two years of Eva’s life were “incredibly intimate and tender,” as a fiercely independent woman ended up very frail and completely dependent on him as her carer. Likewise, Faber had to shift from creativity to practicality to cope with household tasks plus caregiving.
Cathy Rentzenbrink was the perfect person to interview Faber. She is the author of a bereavement memoir, The Last Act of Love, about her brother’s death after eight years in a vegetative state. Moreover, her mother survived a bout with cancer at the same age as Eva; she was heavily involved with that process through accompanying her to chemotherapy appointments. I was a bit disappointed that Rentzenbrink didn’t get to speak more about her own grief and the experience of crafting a narrative out of it. Faber said he too had envisioned more of a dialogue, but that Rentzenbrink thought it would be inappropriate for her to talk about herself and generously kept the focus on his work instead.
I also would have appreciated more context about grief literature in general, and poetry in particular. Faber did mention that there are many kinds of grief poetry. For instance, Thomas Hardy was still writing poems about his first wife decades after her death. Faber consciously avoided writing elegant, well-formed poetry like some that he’s read; instead he wanted his poems to be raw, direct, even shocking. Contrast that with the rainbows and heavenly visions of much of what’s out there. This came home to me a few weeks ago at my husband’s uncle’s funeral. Three poems were recited in the course of the ceremony, all of them heavily clichéd and unfailingly rhymed. This meant that the speakers ended up using singsong voices. In Faber’s poems, though, end rhymes are rare. I noticed them more, along with the sibilance and internal rhymes, through the emphasis he lent when reading aloud.
Rentzenbrink insisted there is still life to be lived for the grieving. As if to reinforce her point, Faber openly admitted to his relationship with a fellow writer who also lost a longtime partner, Louisa Young, whom he met the year after Eva’s death. He’s aware that this poses a marketing problem: he’s no longer the disconsolate soul in rumpled clothing, barely surviving without his spouse. (Indeed, he looked well put together and hip in his blue leather jacket and bright orange shoes, and his blond mop makes him appear much younger than he is.) Thinking also of a widower friend, Rentzenbrink said that her feeling was “he looked after her for so many years; he can have a little fun now!”
As to Faber’s professional future, he reiterated that he does not plan to write any more novels for adults. All of his fiction is about characters desperate to transcend, he said, and now it’s time for him to do that in his own life. He’s pondered a couple of nonfiction projects about aesthetics and music, but for now his next goal is a YA adventure novel. Whenever plaintive readers beg him for future novels, he cheekily asks whether they’ve read his whole back catalogue – including two collections of short stories, always a hard sell for novel readers. I have six more of Faber’s books to get to myself, so that’s plenty to fuel me in the years ahead. I came away from this event with a greater appreciation for the poems in Undying and a deep respect for a man aware of the seasons of his life, writing and caregiving among them.