This month we begin with Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020), last year’s Booker Prize winner. (See Kate’s opening post.) I tried it a couple of times and couldn’t get past page 100, but I’ve kept my proof copy on the shelf to try some other time.
#1 The main character’s sweet nickname takes me to Sugar and Other Stories by A.S. Byatt. Byatt is my favourite author. Rereading her The Matisse Stories last year was rewarding, and I’d eventually like to go back to the rest of her short fiction. I read Sugar and Other Stories in Bath in 2006. (As my MA year in Leeds came to a close, I interviewed at several libraries, hoping to get onto a graduate trainee scheme so I could stay in the UK for another year. It didn’t work out, but I got to tour many wonderful libraries.) I picnicked on the grass on a May day on the University of Bath campus before my interview at the library.
I can’t claim to remember the book well overall, but I do recall the story “The July Ghost,” in which a man at a party tells a story about his landlady and the silent boy he’s seen in her garden. This turns out to be the ghost of her son, who died when he was hit by a car two summers earlier. I’ve never forgotten it because that’s exactly what happened to Byatt’s 12-year-old son.
#2 The title of that memorable story takes me to The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This review from the early days of my blog is still inexplicably popular in terms of number of views. The novel is full of unlikable characters and quirkiness for the sake of it; I doubt I would have read it had I not been sent an unsolicited review copy by the U.S. publisher.
#3 According to a search of my Goodreads library, the only other book I’ve ever read by a Miranda is A Girl Walks into a Book by Miranda K. Pennington, a charming bibliomemoir about the lives and works of the Brontës. I especially enjoyed the cynical dissection of Wuthering Heights, a classic I’ve never managed to warm to.
#4 From one famous set of sisters in the arts to another with Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, a novel about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. It is presented as Vanessa’s diary, incorporating letters and telegrams. The interactions with their Bloomsbury set are delightful, and sibling rivalry is a perennial theme I can’t resist.
#5 Another Vanessa novel and one I would highly recommend to anyone wanting a nuanced look at the #MeToo phenomenon is My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. It’s utterly immersive and as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written. I also appreciated the allusions to other works of literature, from Nabokov (the title is from Pale Fire) to Swift. This would make a great book club selection.
#6 Speaking of feminist responses to #MeToo, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is just as good as you’ve heard. If you haven’t read it yet, why not? It’s a linked short story collection about 12 black women navigating twentieth-century and contemporary Britain – balancing external and internal expectations to build lives of their own. It reads like poetry.
Cycling round from one Booker Prize winner to another, I’ve featured stories by and about strong women, with most of my links coming from names and titles.
Whatever could be on the 2021 Booker Prize longlist? We have a lot of literary prize races to see out before then, but I’m keen to learn what Rev. Rowan Williams and the rest of the judges deem worthy.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is Beezus and Ramona, in honour of Beverly Cleary (May 1, 2021).
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Bookish Beck launched six years ago today. This is the 874th post, which means I’m producing 2.8 posts per week – a pleasing average.
My six most popular posts of all time, with the number of views, are:
Some new interest there in super-short novellas and in a Barbara Kingsolver event. Me daring to admit I don’t love Elena Ferrante has been quite a draw. My The Diary of a Bookseller review was in my most popular lists last year and the year before as well. The First Bad Man was one of the first reviews I ever published here and has always been among my top posts, for some reason. The Clock Dance review was in the top four at the time of my fourth anniversary, took a break last year, and is now back in the rankings.
It’s also International Women’s Day today. Six of my favorite books by women that I’ve read in the last few years are:
March by Geraldine Brooks
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver*
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott*
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas*
*These were rereads and I loved them even more the second time around.
Thanks to all who support my blog by commenting, retweeting, and so on. You’re stars!
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
Sigh. It keeps happening. A book that looks unmissable ends up disappointing me and I abandon it partway through. Here’s six I dropped recently: two from the library, two e-copies I was meant to review but found I couldn’t recommend, and two that couldn’t hold my interest on our European holiday. Below I give brief write-ups of the abandonees. As always, I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.
You Are Having a Good Time: Stories by Amie Barrodale
I only managed the first two stories. Barrodale writes in a flat, affectless style full of unconnected sentences; her themes are of Hollywood and the emptiness of modern life. This reminded me most of Miranda July, so if you’re a big fan of hers I’d say go for it. Otherwise, don’t bother. [Read the first 21%.]
Sweet Home by Carys Bray
These gently magical short stories equate parenthood with peril: a child is always somehow lost or on the verge of being lost. “Just in Case” is wonderfully macabre, and I was glad to discover how A Song for Issy Bradley got its start (with “Scaling never”). The fragility of memory is another theme, with one story narrated by a woman with dementia. The title story has a Hansel and Gretel fairytale feel to it. I enjoyed the first half well enough, but didn’t feel compelled to continue; I definitely prefer Bray’s full-length work, and this needed to go back to the library anyway. [Read the first 96 pages out of 178.]
Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
[translated from the French by Euan Cameron]
I loved the idea behind this: a memoir in the form of short essays built around scent memories. Cinnamon brings the Christmas season to mind, aftershave reminds him of his father, and garlic and cannabis dredge up different aspects of his growing-up years. There’s some beautifully poetic language here. A favorite line was “The child that I am is allowed to breathe in these smells of dead pollen, widowed woolens and orphaned linen so that one day he can piece them together into a narrative and resurrect lives lost through wars, illnesses and accidents.” But ultimately I got a bit tired of more of the same. Perhaps if I’d kept it as a bedside book and just read a few pieces at a time instead of attempting to read it straight through, it would have worked better for me. [Read the first 86 pages out of 173.]
Absalom’s Daughters by Suzanne Feldman
Three generations of black women – Cassie, Lil Ma and Grandmother – live on Negro Street above the laundry where they work in Heron-Neck, Mississippi. Cassie learns that her father is a white man, William Forrest, whose daughter Judith is near her age. They know they’re sisters and when they hear their worthless pater has received an inheritance they concoct a scheme to go get their nest egg. Alas, the Southern dialect feels false to me, and I wasn’t taken with any of the characters. (Great piece of trivia: Feldman used to write science fiction under the pen name “Severna Park,” which is a town in Maryland.) [Read the first 18%.]
The Hemingway Thief by Shaun Harris
I thought this would be a fun, light-hearted literary mystery to read on European trains. Henry Cooper, a writer of vampire romances, takes a sabbatical to Mexico to figure out what he really wants to do. Here he unexpectedly wanders into intrigue when a Hemingway manuscript turns up in a small-time criminal’s hotel room. I never warmed to the uninspired hardboiled-lite style and it took far too long for the story to get going. [Read the first 17%.]
Setting Free the Bears by John Irving
This was Irving’s debut, and although you can see seeds of the Dickensian characterization at which he excels in his best work, it was just not good overall. Neither Siggy nor Graff held my interest, and the dialogue feels stiff and unrealistic. There’s also some downright strange wording: “I could peek how the helmet nearly covered her eyes”; “the rain still puddled the courtyard”; “When his spongy ribs whomped the cobbles, the horse said, ‘Gnif!’” I couldn’t decide if this was Irving trying to show that the story is set abroad or if it was just evidence of bad writing. My husband is enough of an Irving fan to have gobbled the book up by the time we reached Austria, but I decided it wasn’t going to get much better. That’s a shame, as I would have liked to get to them, you know, actually setting free the bears at the Vienna Zoo. [Read the first 75 pages out of 384.]
Scribner sent me a copy of this one entirely at random. I had barely heard of the author (an indie filmmaker and visual artist) and knew nothing about the book before starting it – which is probably for the best given that a simple synopsis makes it sound even weirder than it really is and would likely have turned me off. That black-and-white cover doesn’t really give you any clues, either, though when you open it up you get the riotously colored modern art swirls of the endpapers. You could think of the design as emblematic of the book itself: unpromising from the outside but reasonably rewarding once you get into it.
Cheryl Glickman is a neurotic 43-year-old manager at Open Palm, a Los Angeles area women’s self-defense organization that now mostly runs fitness classes. Her obsessive personality comes through with her devotion to “the system,” a strict minimalism that involves as few possessions as possible, plus reusing everything to save time and increase efficiency, and her crush on Phillip Bettelheim, an odious colleague 22 years her senior.
The book opens with two key events: Phil recommends she undergo chromotherapy for the globus in her throat; and her bosses con her into hosting their 21-year-old daughter, Clee, who seems to do nothing but lie around watching TV. The color therapy morphs into more general therapy with Ruth-Anne, while the unwanted houseguest changes Cheryl’s life forever, though not at all in the way one might expect.
“What was the name of the situation I was in? What category was this?” Cheryl wonders to herself. Clee messes with her system and starts mocking and even physically abusing Cheryl. Instead of kicking her out, though, Cheryl codifies their fights into reenactments of some of Open Palm’s 1990s self-defense videos (the title phrase comes from one of these scenarios).
And then things get sexual. First Phil starts texting about his infatuation with a 16-year-old, asking permission to make a move. Next Cheryl starts an intense masturbation campaign, imagining Clee in various pornographic situations. Sometimes Cheryl pretends she is Phil diddling Clee. To take her mind off things, Ruth-Anne suggests that Cheryl sing. She chooses a David Bowie song.
(Still with me?)
Cheryl has conflicted feelings about Clee. She likes the physical closeness of their combative relationship. At the same time, she’s disgusted by Clee’s laziness and smelly feet. Still, she’s fixated. “Her cowlike vacuousness didn’t really bother me anymore. Or it didn’t matter—her personality was just a little piece of parsley decorating warm tawny haunches.”
Eventually Cheryl wakes up to the reality that she is “a middle-aged woman who couldn’t keep her hands off herself.” The first half of the book is about fantasy and fabrication. “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting,” as Ruth-Anne says. In the second, though, things swiftly turn concrete when Clee realizes she’s pregnant. Cheryl takes on an advisory and later a supportive role; “I’d been her enemy, then her mother, then her girlfriend. That was three lifetimes right there.”
Does Clee love Cheryl? Does Cheryl love Clee? It’s hard to say; “maybe that was the point of love: not to think.” Regardless, all of a sudden, Cheryl finds herself a mother. “[Clee] was the worst possible person to do this with—that was evident now, but what could I do?” July herself had a new baby at the time of writing this novel, which accounts for how authentic the Jack sections feel. It’s a bit of an aimless story, but watching Cheryl’s development is certainly interesting. I could have done without most of the Phil stuff, but it turns out he’s important to the plot.
If I had to compare July’s style to anyone else’s, it would be Douglas Coupland. At times Cheryl was also a bit like Don Tillman in The Rosie Effect, what with her matter-of-fact recounting of Jack’s fetal development. Blend the voyeuristic raunchiness of The Heart Goes Last with the uncomfortable physical reality of After Birth, two novels I’ve previously reviewed on this blog, and you get an idea of the dynamic at work here.
I can’t say I entirely enjoyed the book; I don’t always appreciate quirky-for-quirkiness’-sake. However, my utter lack of expectations was a good thing, and I thought July did a solid job of making her somewhat unpleasant characters sympathetic by making them go through one of life’s central challenges: parenthood. She also comes up with some delightfully off-the-wall sentences, as in my favorite passage, in which Cheryl vocalizes her thoughts to baby Jack:
“You are a sweet potato.”This sounded literal, as if I was letting him know he was a root vegetable, a tuber. “You’re a baby,” I added, just in case there was any confusion on that last point.
Have you ever read a book by a celebrity known for their achievements in a different field? What did you think?