Another in an ongoing series as I catch up on the current and previous year releases I’ve been sent for review. Today I have four books by women: a poetry collection about living between countries and languages, a magic realist novel about vengeful spirits in Vietnam, a memoir in verse about the disabled body and queer parenting, and a novel set in gentrifying Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York City.
From the Jhalak Prize longlist:
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller (2021)
Miller is a Malaysian American poet currently living in Edinburgh. Honorifics was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Its themes resonate with poetry I’ve read by other Asian women like Romalyn Ante and Jenny Xie and with the works of mixed-race authors such as Jessica J. Lee and Nina Mingya Powles: living between two or more countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home.
Nightly, you rosary American synonyms for success learned the hard way: suburb – 10-year visa – promotion – carpool – mortgage – parent-teacher conference – nuclear family – assimilation … Homecoming is the last, hardest thing you’ll ask yourself to do.
“Loving v. Virginia” celebrates interracial love: “Look at us, improper. Look at us, indecent. Look at us, incandescent and loving.” Food is a vehicle for memory, as are home videos. Like Ante, Miller has a poem based on her mother’s voicemail messages. “Glitch honorifics” gives the characters for different family relationships, comparing Chinese and Hokkien. The imagery is full of colour and light, plants and paintings. A terrific central section called “Bloom” contains 10 jellyfish poems (“We bloom like nuclear hydrangea … I’m an unwound chandelier, / a 150-foot-long coil of cilia, // made up of a million gelatinous foxgloves.”).
Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms (“Sonnet with lighthouses,” “Moon goddess ghazal,” “Persimmon abecedarian”) and others freer forms like a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Six of the poems cite an inspiration; I could particularly see the influence in “The Home Office after Caroline Bird” – an absurdist take on government immigration policy.
There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. “Malaysiana,” a tour through everything she loves about the country of her birth, was my single favourite poem, and a couple more passages I loved were “the heart measuring breaths like levelling sugar / for a batter, the heart saying / why don’t you come in from the cold.” (from “The impossible physiology of the free diver”) and the last two stanzas of “Lupins”: “Some days / their purple spines // are the only things / holding me up.” Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking to try out different styles of contemporary poetry.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
From the Women’s Prize longlist:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (2021)
Back in 2014, I reviewed Kupersmith’s debut collection, The Frangipani Hotel, for BookBrowse. I was held rapt by its ghostly stories of Vietnam, so I was delighted to hear that she had written a debut novel, and it was one of my few correct predictions for the Women’s Prize nominees. The main action takes place between when Winnie – half white and half Vietnamese – arrives in Saigon to teach English in 2010, and when she disappears from the house she shared with her boyfriend of three months, Long, in March 2011. But the timeline darts about to tell a much more expansive story, starting with the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in the 1940s. Each date is given as the number of months or years before or after Winnie’s disappearance.
Winnie starts off living with a great-aunt and cousins, and meets a family friend, Dr. Sang, who’s been experimenting on a hallucinogenic drug made from cobra venom. Long and his brother, Tan, a policeman, were childhood friends with a fearless young woman named Binh – now a vengeful ghost haunting them both. Meanwhile, the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company, led by the Fortune Teller, is called upon to eradicate a ghost – which from time to time seems to inhabit a small dog – from a snake-infested highland estate. These strands are bound to meet, and smoke and snakes wind their way through them all.
I enjoyed Kupersmith’s energetic writing, which reminded me by turns of Nicola Barker, Ned Beauman, Elaine Castillo and Naoise Dolan, and the glimpses of Cambodia and Vietnam we get through meals and motorbike rides. What happens with Belly the dog towards the end is fantastic. But the chronology feels needlessly complex, with the flashbacks to colonial history and even to Binh’s story not adding enough to the narrative. While I’d still like to see Kupersmith make the shortlist, I can recommend her short stories that bit more highly.
With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Handbook for the Newly Disabled: A Lyric Memoir by Allison Blevins (2022)
Allison Blevins, a poet, has published five chapbooks or collections and has another forthcoming. Based in Missouri and the director of an indie press, she tells her story of chronic illness and queer parenting in 10 “chapters” composed of multi-part poems. She moves through brain fog and commemorates pain and desire, which cannot always coexist (as in “How to F**k a Disabled Body”).
ride a bike again, hike, carry my children. I’m learning to number what I’ve lost.
Because of the pills, I no longer fall into sleep, I stop. I used to hate queer at 19
when I was a dyke. I can’t be disabled. I need a better word. I need a body that floats—
translucent and liquid—to my daughter’s bed, to cover her like cotton-red quilted stars.
(from “Brain Fog”)
Sometimes the title is enough: “My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain Is Not a Symptom of MS.” Other times, what is left out, or erased (as in “Five by Five”) is what matters the most. For instance, the Photo Illustrations promised in the titles of two chapters are replaced by Accessibility Notes. That strategy reminded me of one Raymond Antrobus has used. Alliteration, synesthesia and the language of the body express the complexities of a friend’s cancer, having a trans partner, and coming to terms with sexuality (“I think now that being queer was easy, easy as forgetting / being born”). A really interesting work and an author I’d like to read more from.
Published by BlazeVOX [books] on 22 March. With thanks to the author for the e-copy for review.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González (2022)
This was on my radar thanks to a starred Kirkus review. It would have been a good choice for the Women’s Prize longlist, with its bold heroine, Latinx and gay characters, and blend of literary and women’s fiction. The Puerto Rican immigrant community and gentrifying neighbourhoods of New York City are appealing locales, and Olga is a clever, gutsy protagonist. As the novel opens in 2017, she’s working out how best to fleece the rich families whose progeny’s weddings she plans. Today it’s embezzling napkins for her cousin Mabel’s wedding. Next: stockpiling cut-price champagne. Olga’s brother Prieto, a slick congressman inevitably nicknamed the “Latino Obama,” is a closeted gay man. Their late father was a drug addict; their mother left to be part of a revolutionary movement back in PR and sends her children occasional chiding letters when they appear to be selling out.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria coincides with upheaval in Olga’s and Prieto’s personal and professional lives. The ins and outs of Puerto Rican politics went over my head somewhat, and the various schemes and conspiracy theories get slightly silly. The thread that most engaged me was Olga’s relationship with Matteo, a hoarder. I hoped that, following the satire of earlier parts (“Olga realized she’d allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream—accumulating money—by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame. She would never make that mistake again”), there might be a message about the emptiness of the pursuit of wealth. So I ended up a little disappointed by a late revelation about Matteo.
However, I did appreciate the picture of how Olga is up against it as both a woman and a person of colour (“no person of color serious about being taken seriously was ever late to meet white people”). This debut was perhaps a little unsure of what it wanted to be, but the novelty of the main elements was enough to make it worth reading.
With thanks to Fleet for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
What a beautiful spring we’ve been having here. And, as usual, I’ve been reading with the seasons: some nature books about birdsong, flowers, etc., as well as a few books with “Spring” in the title. I have several more on the go that I’ll write up next month.
A Cold Spring by Elizabeth Bishop (1955)
The second of Bishop’s four published collections, this mostly dwells on contrasts between city (e.g. “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” “Varick Street” and “Letter to N.Y.”) and coastal locations (e.g. “The Bight,” “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton”). The three most memorable poems for me were the title one, which opens the book; “The Prodigal,” a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable; and “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” (“From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying,” with those last three words recurring at the end of each successive stanza; also note the sandpipers – one of her most famous poems was “Sandpiper,” from 1965’s Questions of Travel). I find that I love particular lines or images from Bishop’s poetry but not her overall style.
A cold spring:
the violet was flawed on the lawn.
For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited
(from “A Cold Spring”)
Spring: A Folio Anthology, edited by Sue Bradbury (2017)
As a seasonal anthology, this falls short by comparison to the Wildlife Trust’s Spring. There are too many letters or journal entries that only happen to be set in March to May and don’t in any way evoke the season. The selection of poems and passages is fairly predictable, and closing with an ominous extract from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (see below) makes for rather a downbeat conclusion. Highlights: the preface by Paul Evans, Parson Woodforde’s pigs getting drunk on the dregs of some beer (1778), Elizabeth David rhapsodizing about a wild asparagus risotto she had in Italy, and Angus Buchanan coming upon an idyllic setting in Wildlife in Canada. The gorgeous cover, the slightly ornate font that liaises s or c with t, and the three two-page green-dominated illustrations somewhat make up for the lackluster contents.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
When I saw Lucy Jones speak at an event in Hungerford in support of her new book, Losing Eden, early last month, I was intrigued to hear her say that her work was consciously patterned on Silent Spring – right down to the same number of chapters. This prompted me to finally pick up the copy of Carson’s classic that I got free during a cull at the library where I used to work and have a skim through.
Both books are forthright explications of the environmental problems we face, backed up by volumes of irrefutable evidence, and suggest some potential solutions. Both open, though, with a dystopian scene: Carson’s first chapter imagines an American town where things die because nature stops working as it should. Her main target was insecticides that were known to kill birds and had presumed negative effects on human health through the food chain and environmental exposure. Although the details may feel dated, the literary style and the general cautions against submitting nature to a “chemical barrage” remain potent.
A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell (1986)
A seasonal diary that runs from one spring to the next, this is a peaceful book about living alone yet finding community with wildlife and fellow country folk. I took nine months over reading it, keeping it as a bedside book.
At her farm in southern Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, Hubbell had a small beekeeping and honey production business, “a shaky, marginal sort of affair that never quite leaves me free of money worries but which allows me to live in these hills that I love.” After her 30-year marriage ended, she found herself alone in “the afternoon of my life,” facing “the work of building a new kind of order, a structure on which a fifty-year-old woman can live”. In few-page essays she reflects on the weather, her interactions with wildlife (from bats and black rat snakes to a fawn caught in a fence), and country events like a hog roast.
I love introspective books like this one that balance solitude with nature and company and that showcase older women’s wisdom (Joan Anderson, May Sarton and Barbara J. Scot also write/wrote in this vein). Hubbell, who died at age 83 in late 2018, wrote broader scientific narratives about evolution and genetic engineering, as well as detailed books about bees and other insects. I’ll look out for more of her work.
A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear when the Birds Sing by Richard Smyth (2017)
Despite being a birdwatcher since childhood, Smyth had always been ambivalent about birdsong. He certainly wasn’t one of those whizzes who can identify any bird by its call; in fact, he needed convincing that bird vocalizations are inherently beautiful. So he set off to answer a few questions: Why do birds sing? How can we recognize them by their songs? And how have these songs played into the human‒bird relationship throughout history? Ranging from bird anatomy to poetry, his historical survey is lighthearted reading that was perfect for the early days of spring. There are also chapters on captive birds, the use of birdsong in classical music, and the contribution birds make to the British soundscape. A final section, more subdued and premonitory in the vein of Silent Spring, imagines a world without birdsong and “the diminution that we all suffer. … Our lives become less rich.” (The title phrase is how Gilbert White described the blackcap’s song, Smyth’s favorite.)
when everything around you seems to be moving at a gallop, a bird’s song reminds you that some things stay the same … that you really can go home again.
in many ways the whole point of birdsong is that it’s beyond our grasp. It’s fleeting, evanescent; you might as well try to take a fistful of morning mist. But that hasn’t stopped us trying.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
With bare trees leading down to the canal and frosty temperatures forecast for the weekend, it’s starting to feel more like winter here. I journeyed through a fine autumn with two obscure classics that ended up being gems.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice (1939)
MacNeice, a poet and man of letters from Northern Ireland, wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. It’s simultaneously about everything and nothing, about everyday life for the common worker and the political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. As summer fades and Christmas draws closer, he reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; and on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose.
Two in every four lines rhyme, but the rhyme scheme is so subtle that I was far into the book before I recognized it. I tend not to like prose poems, but this book offers a nice halfway house between complete sentences and a stanza form, and it voices the kinds of feelings we can all relate to. How can this possibly be 80 years old? It is so relevant to our situation now.
we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,
Just like this before, we must be dreaming…’
now it seems futility, imbecility,
To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next.
There are only too many who say ‘What difference does it make
One way or the other?
To turn the stream of history will take
More than a by-election.’
Still there are … the seeds of energy and choice
Still alive even if forbidden, hidden,
And while a man has voice
He may recover music.
The university library copy I borrowed smells faintly of incense, so reading it was rather like slipping into the back pew of an old church and pondering timelessness.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale (1950)
Teale is a lesser-known naturalist who specialized in insects and edited or introduced works by famous natural historians of a previous era like Thoreau, Fabre, Hudson and Muir. In the late 1940s he and his wife Nellie set out on a meandering 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track autumn from its first hints to its last gasp. It was the third of four seasonal journeys the Teales undertook in part to distract them from their grief over their son David, who was killed in Germany during WWII. Their route passes through about half the states and experiences nearly every landscape you can imagine, some that are familiar to me and others that would be totally new. They delve in rockpools; observe bird and monarch migration; cross desert, mountains and prairie; and watch sea otters at play.
Although there is a sense of abundance – they see a million ducks in one day, and pass dozens of roadkill jackrabbits – like Aldo Leopold, Teale was an early conservationist who sounded the alarm about flora and fauna becoming rarer: “So much was going even as we watched.” His descriptions of nature are simply gorgeous, while the scientific explanations of leaf color, “Indian summer” and animal communication are at just the right level for the average reader. This was a lucky find at the Book Thing of Baltimore this past spring, and if I ever get the chance, I will delight in reading the other three in the quartet.
Some favorite lines:
“The stars speak of man’s insignificance in the long eternity of time; the desert speaks of his insignificance right now.”
“Those to whom the trees, the birds, the wildflowers represent only ‘locked-up dollars’ have never known or really seen these things. They have never experienced an interest in nature for itself. Whoever stimulates a wider appreciation of nature, a wider understanding of nature, a wider love of nature for its own sake accomplishes no small thing.”
I’m also still reading Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph, a book about what you see and smell in the garden month by month. I only have the December chapter still to read, followed by some lists of plants set out by ‘when they smell’ and when you plant them. I’ve also been slowly working through A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell, another Book Thing find. After her divorce, Hubbell lived alone on her 90 acres in the Ozarks of Missouri, keeping bees and conscientiously rebuilding a life in communion with nature. I still have the final two sections, “Winter” and “Spring,” left to read.
How’s the weather where you are?
Have you read any “Autumn” books lately?
I’d never heard of this 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner before I saw a large display of titles from publisher Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo, at Foyles bookshop in London the night of the Diana Athill event. Apollo, which launched with eight titles in April, aims to bring lesser-known classics out of obscurity: by making “great forgotten works of fiction available to a new generation of readers,” it intends to “challenge the established canon and surprise readers.” I’ll be reviewing Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son for Shiny New Books soon, and I’m tempted by the Eudora Welty and Christina Stead titles. Rounding out the list are two novels set in Eastern Europe, a Sardinian novel in translation, and an underrated Western.
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. She recognizes how unsuited her father, Arnold, was to farming: “He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have – that resignation which knows how little use to hope or hate.” The remaining members of this female-dominated household are mother Willa, older sister Kerrin and younger sister Merle. Half-feral Kerrin is a creature apart. She’s always doing something unpredictable, like demonstrating knife-throwing to disastrous effect or taking over as the local schoolteacher, a job she’s not at all right for.
The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help Arnold with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change:
‘This year will have to be different,’ I thought. ‘We’ve scrabbled and prayed too long for it to end as the others have.’ The debt was still like a bottomless swamp unfilled, where we had gone year after year, throwing in hours of heat and the wrenching on stony land, only to see them swallowed up and then to creep back and begin again.
Yet as drought settles in, things only get worse. The fear of losing everything becomes a collective obsession; a sense of insecurity pervades the community. The Ramseys, black tenant farmers with nine children, are evicted. Milk producers go on strike and have to give the stuff away before it sours. Nature is indifferent and neither is there a benevolent God at work: when the Haldmarnes go to church, they are refused communion as non-members.
Marget skips around in time to pinpoint the central moments of their struggle, her often fragmentary thoughts joined by ellipses – a style that seemed to me ahead of its time:
if anything could fortify me against whatever was to come […] it would have to be the small and eternal things – the whip-poor-wills’ long liquid howling near the cave… the shape of young mules against the ridge, moving lighter than bucks across the pasture… things like the chorus of cicadas, and the ponds stained red in evenings.
Michael Schmidt, the critic who selected the first eight Apollo books, likens Now in November to the work of two very different female writers: Marilynne Robinson and Emily Brontë. What I think he is emphasizing with those comparisons is the sense of isolation and the feeling that struggle is writ large on the landscape. The Haldmarne sisters certainly wander the nearby hills like the Brontë sisters did the Yorkshire moors.
As points of reference I would also add Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (resurrected by NYRB Classics in 2014), which also give timeless weight to the female experience of Midwest farming. Like the Smiley, Now in November stars a trio of sisters and makes conscious allusions to King Lear. Kerrin reads the play and thinks of their father as Lear, while Marget quotes it as a prophecy that the worst is yet to come: “I remembered the awful words in Lear: ‘The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ Already this year, I’d cried, This is enough! uncounted times, and the end had never come.”
Johnson lived to age 80 and published another 11 books, but nothing ever lived up to the success of her first. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, the folksy metaphors, and the philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where this tragic story might lead. Apollo has done the literary world a great favor in bringing this lost classic to light.
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for the free copy.