This month we begin with Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. (See also Kate’s opening post.) This is my personal favourite from the Women’s Prize shortlist and couldn’t be a better pick for the Six Degrees starter this month because I’ll be skimming back through the novel this weekend in advance of my book club’s discussion of it on Monday. (We’re one of this year’s six book groups shadowing the Women’s Prize through a Reading Agency initiative, so we then have to give semi-official feedback on our experience of the book by Wednesday.)
#1 Sorrow and Bliss is a terrific tragicomedy about sisterhood and mental health – as is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, with which it shares a loaded title word as well.
#2 Toews grew up in a Canadian Mennonite community, which leads me to my second choice, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, a set of droll autobiographical essays that I read on a USA trip in 2017.
#3 During the same trip, I read Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, a witty novel about Bennie Ford’s rather miserable life, presented in the form of his longwinded complaint letter to the airline that has treated him to an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago.
#4 Another laugh-out-loud book in the form of unlikely letters: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, in which Jason Fitger, an irascible middle-aged English professor in the Midwest, writes ambivalent letters of recommendation for students and colleagues.
#5 One more “Dear” book of letters – I just can’t get enough of the epistolary form: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence. As the subtitle states, it’s a librarian’s love letters and breakup notes to books she’s adored and loathed. Casual and amusing, with good book recs.
#6 I’ll finish with Weather by Jenny Offill, one of my favourites from 2020, which is also voiced by a librarian. Through Lizzie, Offill captures modern anxiety about Trump-era politics, the climate crisis and making meaningful use of time.
I have read all the books in this month’s chain (the links above are to my Goodreads reviews), and in a time of relentless bad news have chosen to prioritize humour and keep my descriptions short and light. These are all books that made me laugh, sometimes despite their weighty content, and half of them are built around letters. I’ve also looped from one Women’s Prize-shortlisted title to another.
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 will be Wintering by Katherine May – though it’s summer here, it’s winter where Kate is in Australia!
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
“Now that it’s all over I find myself thinking about family history and family memories; the stories that hold a family together and the acts that can split it apart.”
Sigrid Rausing’s brother, Hans, and his wife, Eva, were wealthy philanthropists – and drug addicts who kept it together long enough to marry and have children before relapsing. Hans survived that decade-long dive back into addiction, but Eva did not: in July 2012 the 48-year-old’s decomposed body was found in a sealed-off area of the couple’s £70 million Chelsea mansion. The postmortem revealed that she had been using cocaine, which threw her already damaged heart into a chaotic rhythm. She’d been dead in their drug den for over two months.
Those are the bare facts. Scandalous enough for you? But Mayhem is no true crime tell-all. It does incorporate the straightforward information that is in the public record – headlines, statements and appearances – but blends them into a fragmentary, dreamlike family memoir that proceeds through free association and obsessively deliberates about the nature and nurture aspects of addictive personalities. “We didn’t understand that every addiction case is the same dismal story,” she writes, in a reversal of Tolstoy’s maxim about unhappy families.
Rausing’s memories of idyllic childhood summers in Sweden reminded me of Tove Jansson stories, and the incessant self-questioning of a family member wracked by remorse is similar to what I’ve encountered in memoirs and novels about suicide in the family, such as Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Despite all the pleading letters and e-mails she sent Hans and Eva, and all the interventions and rehab spells she helped arrange, Rausing has a nagging “sense that when I tried I didn’t try hard enough.”
The book moves sinuously between past and present, before and after, fact and supposition. There are a lot of peculiar details and connections in this story, starting with the family history of dementia and alcoholism. Rausing’s grandfather founded the Tetra Pak packaging company, later run by her father. Eva had a pet conspiracy theory that her father-in-law murdered Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.
Rausing did anthropology fieldwork in Estonia and is now the publisher of Granta Books and Granta magazine. True to her career in editing, she’s treated this book project like a wild saga that had to be tamed, “all the sad and sordid details redacted,” but “I fear I have redacted too much,” she admits towards the end. She’s constantly pushing back against the more sensational aspects of this story, seeking instead to ground it in family experience. The book’s sketchy nature is in a sense necessary because information about her four nieces and nephews, of whom she took custody in 2007, cannot legally be revealed. But if she’d waited until they were all of age, might this have been a rather different memoir?
Mayhem effectively conveys the regret and guilt that plague families of addicts. It invites you to feel what it is really like to live through the “years of failed hope” that characterize this type of family tragedy. It doesn’t offer any easy lessons seen in hindsight. That makes it an uncomfortable read, but an honest one.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
My gut feeling: This book’s style could put off more readers than it attracts. I can think of two other memoirs from the longlist that I would have preferred to see in this spot. I suppose I see why the judges rate Mayhem so highly – Edmund de Waal, the chair of this year’s judging panel, describes the Wellcome shortlist as “books that start debates or deepen them, that move us profoundly, surprise and delight and perplex us” – but it’s not in my top tier.
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “Rausing is clearly a perceptive writer. She is very hard on herself; she is brutally honest, knowing that others will be hurt by the book.”
Clare’s review: “Rausing writes thoughtfully about the nature of addiction and its many contradictions.”
Laura’s review: “One of the saddest bits of Mayhem is when Rausing simply lists some of the press headlines that deal with her family story in reverse order, illustrating the seemingly inescapable spiral of addiction.”
Paul’s review: “It is not an easy read subject wise, thankfully Rausing’s sparse but beautiful writing helps makes this an essential read.”
Also, be sure to visit Laura’s blog today for an exclusive extract from Mayhem.
Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race.
If you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and extracts have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Every month I compile the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to click on the link to read more.
The Good Guy by Susan Beale: You might think there’s nothing new to add to the suburban-angst-and-adultery storyline. What Beale does so beautifully in this debut novel is to put you right into the minds of the three main characters. This is a story about the differences between what’s easy and what’s right, and the quest to make amends wherever possible. It’s also a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, because that boring life you were so eager to escape may just be what you wanted after all. I also love the range of settings, from the dazzling Shoppers’ World mall to a beach house on Cape Cod. This is a delicious, slightly gossipy summer read with a Mad Men feel to it. I’d especially recommend this to fans of The Longest Night and Tigers in Red Weather. Releases June 16th.
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams: Four Bristol University friends navigate the highs and lows of life in the 20 years following graduation. Like in One Day, the narrative checks in on the characters nearly every summer. As happens in real life, even the closest friends gradually drift apart. Job situations and relationships change, and external events like the financial collapse of 2008 take a toll. Compared to some other similar recent novels (e.g. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma), this debut somewhat lacks sparkle. Releases June 2nd in the UK and June 28th in the USA.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell’s globe-trotting seventh novel opens in 2010 with Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor in Donegal. Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. The disparate locations and the title suggest our nomadic modern condition. It’s the widest scope she has attempted yet; that’s both a good and a bad thing. I did wonder if there were a few too many characters and plot threads.
(A subscriber service, so I can only make excerpts available.)
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. Torn between two men who mean so much to her, Meri has to consider what her true duties are. “There was no good solution. No clear way out, no approach that would earn the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she wryly observes. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story. Church reveals the difficulty a woman of that time had in choosing her own path and making it fit into men’s plans, and shows how love, as the title suggests, can be a burden but also a thing of reassuring substance. Meri longs, like one of her beloved birds, to take flight into her dreams. Whether she gets there, and how, is a bittersweet trip but one you’ll be glad you went along for.
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A gritty tale of adventure and murder set aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaling ship. Archaic adjectives pile up in a clever recreation of Victorian prose: “The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore.” Much of the novel is bleak and brutal like that. There are a lot of “F” and “C” words, too; this is so impeccably researched that I don’t doubt the language is accurate. McGuire never shies away from gory detail, whether that’s putrid smells, bodily fluids, animal slaughter, or human cruelty. I thought the novel’s villain was perhaps too evil, with no redeeming features. Still, this is a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances. From the open seas to the forbidding polar regions, this is a journey worth taking.
Rediscovering the Immune System as an Integrated Organ by Peter Bretscher: A rigorous introduction to current immunological thought. Vocabulary terms are given in bold italics and defined in context on first use, and each chapter ends with a helpful synopsis. However, these summaries are almost as dense as the text itself, and the many acronyms are difficult to keep straight. Unlike a textbook, though, the book also contains welcome snippets of autobiography. Bretscher traces not just the evolution of immunological knowledge, but also the development of his own thinking. This will be an invaluable resource for students in search of a nonstandard immunology primer. With research under way into vaccinations against AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer, the field has a bright future.
Crowning Glory: An experiment in self-discovery through disguise by Stacy Harshman: In 2005, Harshman decided to embark on a sociological experiment-cum-personal challenge: each week for six weeks she donned a different wig, and with the help of her assistant, Bonnie, she carefully recorded the reactions she received from onlookers and potential partners. Each day she chose three New York City locales, taking in events like lunch, happy hour, and late night socializing. Recalling the time she was hospitalized for a psychotic break in 2000, she marvels at how changing hairstyles could help her feel self-assured and sexy. The book is an appealing cross between a scientific study and a spy story.
All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead: In May 2014, Aitkenhead, a Guardian writer, was on vacation with her partner Tony Wilkinson and their two young sons in Jamaica. A beautiful sunny morning turned disastrous when Tony swam out to rescue their son Jake and drowned. After the tragic events of the first chapter, this wrenching memoir retreats to consider the 10 years she and Tony (a former criminal and crack addict) spent as “the most implausible couple I have ever known.” More than half the book is devoted to the aftermath of Tony’s death, described in a matter-of-fact style that still manages to convey the depth of Aitkenhead’s pain. This is a unique combination of a journalist’s forthright storytelling and the ‘magical thinking’ Joan Didion introduced. Releases in the States on August 16th.
Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade: This rediscovered Romanian classic is what you might get if a teenage Adrian Mole was studying for a philosophy degree. Before picking this up I knew of Eliade as a commentator on world religions. I didn’t realize he also wrote novels. This is particularly special in that it’s a lost manuscript he wrote as a teenager; it was only discovered in a Bucharest attic after his death in the 1980s. The novel’s chief detriments – the repetitive nature of the sections about his schooling, and his obsessive introspection – are also, ironically, what make it most true to the adolescent experience. I’d recommend it to fans of My Brilliant Friend and Melanie Sumner’s How to Write a Novel.
Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The narrator transcends his sordid war memories through his magical approach to life. Actual war scenes only come much later in the book; even then they are conveyed in such an abstract style that they seem more like hallucinations than remembered events. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war. “We made this town, Bosanska Krupa, of black mire, yellow sand and green water borrowed from the Una. The tall towers of our town tickle God’s feet.” What most impressed me about passages like that one is the alliteration that shines through even after translation. I would highly recommend this to readers of Anthony Marra and Daniel Kehlmann.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in this strong debut. Finances and relationships just keep going from bad to worse, as the novel’s tripartite structure suggests: “Dawn” cedes to “Dusk,” which descends into “Night.” You wonder just how terrible things can get – will this really reach the Thomas Hardy levels of tragedy it seems to portend? – until, in the incredible last 10 pages, Yun pulls back from violence and offers the hope of redemption. I did wonder if there were a few too many secondary characters. However, the Korean-American culture of honor and shame makes a perfect setting. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang: Mental illness haunts an Asian-American family in this offbeat multi-generational saga. Wang’s debut novel opens in 1968 with David Nowak reporting from the motel room where he plans to kill himself. Succeeding portions of the novel are narrated from other perspectives: David’s wife Jia-Hui, aka Daisy, whom he met in Taiwan; then their son William and his half-sister Gillian. Jia-Hui’s narrative is the most entrancing. Presented as a translation, it includes occasional foreign characters or blank spaces where she couldn’t quite catch what someone was saying in English. Her sections are full of foreboding about the family legacy of madness. I was reminded most of A Reunion of Ghosts and All My Puny Sorrows. Something about this book left a slightly bitter aftertaste for me, but there’s no doubt Wang has fine plotting, character building, and prose skills.
The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly by Luis Sepúlveda: Zorba, a fat black cat, will be alone this summer while his boy’s family go on holiday – convenient given the adventure that’s about to befall him. Kengah, an exhausted and oil-drenched seagull, lands on his balcony and lays a final, precious egg. She makes Zorba promise he will not eat the egg but will look after her baby and teach it to fly. He enlists his motley group of fellow cats at the port of Hamburg to help him figure out how to raise a chick. Sepúlveda, a Chilean author, was jailed under the Pinochet regime and was later on the crew of a Greenpeace ship. The environmental message here is noticeable but not overpowering. Geared towards confident nine- to eleven-year-olds, this might also be read aloud with younger children.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai: Marty Wu is an advertising account executive for a NYC retirees’ magazine but dreams of opening her own costume shop. This debut novel is her Bridget Jones-esque diary, often written in a kind of shorthand style contrasting her goals with her seemingly inevitably failures, as in: “Crap. Is 4:00 a.m. Have breakfast meeting. Must sleep.” She’s constantly quoting to herself the advice and wisdom she’s gleaned from various motivational books she picked up in hopes of self-improvement. Lai writes engagingly about the contrasts between Taiwan and the States, especially the complexities of family roles. This is a lighthearted, summery read. Watch Marty ditch self-help books and start living the life she wants anyway.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: A nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? The novel draws on about 50 historical cases of “Fasting Girls” that occurred in Europe and North America in the 16th to 20th centuries. It sets up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition. Donoghue writes convincing, vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology. This is the fifth book I’ve read by her, and it’s by far my favorite. With the two-week time limit and the fact that most scenes take place in the cabin – with just a handful set in other village locales like the bog and the pub where Lib stays – this has something of the flavor of a locked-room mystery. Releases September 20th.
Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A nostalgic tour through a soccer fan’s highlights. Over the years Toussaint has realized what he loves about the sport: its seasonality (the World Cup “comes round every four years with the regularity of a leap-year seasonal fruit”) and the rituals of attending a match. On the other hand, he recognizes downsides, such as temporary permission given to chauvinism and the fact that it doesn’t age well – it’s an instant thing; one doesn’t tend to watch repeats. My favorite chapter, set in 2014, is less about sports and more about a hard time in the author’s personal life: he had recently lost his father and finished a ten-year novel sequence, leaving him unsure what to do next. I enjoyed his introspective passages about the writing life and the sense of purpose it gives his struggles. I was not the ideal reader, given my general antipathy to sports and my unfamiliarity with the author. All the same, I can see how this would appeal to fans of Fever Pitch.