As per usual, I’m squeezing in my final 20 Books of Summer reviews late on the very last day of the challenge. I’ll call it a throwback to the all-star procrastination of my high school and college years. This was a strong quartet to finish on: two novels, the one about (felling) trees and the other about communicating via flowers; and two nonfiction books about identifying trees and finding harmony with nature.
Tree-Spotting: A Simple Guide to Britain’s Trees by Ros Bennett; illus. Nell Bennett (2022)
Botanist Ros Bennett has designed this as a user-friendly guide that can be taken into the field to identify 52 of Britain’s most common trees. Most of these are native species, plus a few naturalized ones. “Walks in the countryside … take on a new dimension when you find yourself on familiar, first-name terms with the trees around you,” she encourages. She introduces tree families, basics of plant anatomy and chemistry, and the history of the country’s forests before moving into identification. Summer leaves make ID relatively easy with a three-step set of keys, explained in words as well as with impressively detailed black-and-white illustrations of representative species’ leaves (by her daughter, Nell Bennett).
Seasonality makes things trickier: “Identifying plants is not rocket science, though occasionally it does require lots of patience and a good hand lens. Identifying trees in winter is one of those occasions.” This involves a close look at details of the twigs and buds – a challenge I’ll be excited to take up on canalside walks later this year. The third section of the book gives individual profiles of each featured species, with additional drawings. I learned things I never realized I didn’t know (like how to pronounce family names, e.g., Rosaceae is “Rose-A-C”), and formalized other knowledge. For instance, I can recognize an ash tree by sight, but now I know you identify an ash by its 9–13 compound, opposite, serrated leaflets.
Some of the information was more academic than I needed (as with one of my earlier summer reads, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham), but it’s easy to skip any sections that don’t feel vital and come back to them another time. I most valued the approachable keys and their accompanying text, and will enjoy taking this compact naked hardback on autumn excursions. Bennett never dumbs anything down, and invites readers to delight in discovery. “So – go out, introduce yourself to your neighbouring trees and wonder at their beauty, ingenuity and variety.”
With thanks to publicist Claire Morrison and Welbeck for the free copy for review.
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson (2021)
When this would-be Great American Novel* arrived unsolicited through my letterbox last summer, I was surprised I’d not encountered the pre-publication buzz. The cover blurb is from Nickolas Butler, which gives you a pretty good sense of what you’re getting into: a gritty, working-class story set in what threatens to be an overwhelmingly male milieu. For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has been involved in logging California’s redwoods. Davidson is from Arcata, California, and clearly did a lot of research to recreate an insider perspective and a late 1970s setting. There is some specialist vocabulary and slang (the loggers call the largest trees “big pumpkins”), but it’s easy enough to understand in context.
What saves the novel from going too niche is the double billing of Rich and his wife, Colleen, who is an informal community midwife and has been trying to get pregnant again almost ever since their son Chub’s birth. She’s had multiple miscarriages, and their family and acquaintances have experienced alarming rates of infant loss and severe birth defects. Conservationists, including an old high school friend of Colleen’s, are attempting to stop the felling of redwoods and the spraying of toxic herbicides.
A major element, then, is people gradually waking up to the damage chemicals are doing to their waterways and, thereby, their bodies. The problem, for me, was that I realized this much earlier than any of the characters, and it felt like Davidson laid it on too thick with the many examples of human and animal deaths and deformities. This made the book feel longer and less subtle than, e.g., The Overstory. I started it as a buddy read with Marcie (Buried in Print) 11 months ago and quickly bailed, trying several more times to get back into the book before finally resorting to skimming to the end. Still, especially for a debut author, Davidson’s writing chops are impressive; I’ll look out for what she does next.
*I just spotted that it’s been shortlisted for the $25,000 Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2011)
The cycle would continue. Promises and failures, mothers and daughters, indefinitely.
The various covers make this look more like chick lit than it is. Basically, it’s solidly readable issues- and character-driven literary fiction, on the lighter side but of the caliber of any Oprah’s Book Club selection. It reminded me most of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, one of my 20 Books selections in 2018, because of the focus on the foster care system and a rebellious girl’s development in California, and the floral metaphors.
In Diffenbaugh’s debut, Victoria Jones ages out of foster care at 18 and leaves her group home for an uncertain future. She spends time homeless in San Francisco but her love of flowers, and particularly the Victorian meanings assigned to them, lands her work in a florist’s shop and reconnects her with figures from her past. Chapters alternate between her present day and the time she came closest to being adopted – by Elizabeth, who owned a vineyard and loved flowers, when she was nine. We see how estrangements and worries over adequate mothering recur, with Victoria almost a proto-‘Disaster Woman’ who keeps sabotaging herself. Throughout, flowers broker reconciliations.
I won’t say more about a plot that would be easy to spoil, but this was a delight and reminded me of a mini flower dictionary with a lilac cover and elaborate cursive script that I owned when I was a child. I loved the thought that flowers might have secret messages, as they do for the characters here. Whatever happened to that book?! (Charity shop)
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
I’d heard Kimmerer recommended by just about every nature writer around, North American or British, and knew I needed this on my shelf. Before I ever managed to read it, I saw her interviewed over Zoom by Lucy Jones in July 2021 about her other popular science book, Gathering Moss, which was first published 18 years ago but only made it to the UK last year. So I knew what a kind and peaceful person she is: she just emanates warmth and wisdom, even over a computer screen.
And I did love Braiding Sweetgrass nearly as much as I expected to, with the caveat that the tiny-print 400 pages of my paperback edition make the essays feel very dense. I could only read a handful of pages in a sitting. Also, after about halfway, it started to feel a bit much, like maybe she had given enough examples from her life, Native American legend and botany. The same points about gratitude for the gifts of the Earth, kinship with other creatures, responsibility and reciprocity are made over and over.
However, I feel like this is the spirituality the planet needs now, so I’ll excuse any repetition (and the basket-weaving essay I thought would never end). “In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.” (She’s funny, too, so you don’t have to worry about the contents getting worthy.) She effectively wields the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for human greed, essential to a capitalist economy based on “emptiness” and “unmet desires.”
I most enjoyed the shorter essays that draw on her fieldwork or her experience of motherhood. “The Gift of Strawberries” – “An Offering” – “Asters and Goldenrod” make a stellar three-in-a-row, and “Collateral Damage” is an excellent later one about rescuing salamanders from the road, i.e. doing the small thing that we can do rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture of nature in crisis. “The Sound of Silverbells” is one of the most well-crafted individual pieces, about taking a group of students camping when she lived in the South. At first their religiosity (creationism and so on) grated, but when she heard them sing “Amazing Grace” she knew that they sensed the holiness of the Great Smoky Mountains.
But the pair I’d recommend most highly, the essays that made me weep, are “A Mother’s Work,” about her time restoring an algae-choked pond at her home in upstate New York, and its follow-up, “The Consolation of Water Lilies,” about finding herself with an empty nest. Her loving attention to the time-consuming task of bringing the pond back to life is in parallel to the challenges of single parenting, with a vision of the passing of time being something good rather than something to resist.
Here are just a few of the many profound lines:
For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.
I’m a plant scientist and I want to be clear, but I am also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor.
Ponds grow old, and though I will too, I like the ecological idea of aging as progressive enrichment, rather than progressive loss.
This will be a book to return to time and again. (Gift from my wish list several years ago)
I also had one DNF from this summer’s list:
Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson: This reminded me of a cross between The Crow Road by Iain Banks and The Heavens by Sandra Newman, what with the teenage narrator and a vague time travel plot with some Shakespearean references. I put it on the pile for this challenge because I’d read it had a forest setting. I haven’t had much luck with Atkinson in the past and this didn’t keep me reading past page 60. (Little Free Library)
A Look Back at My 20 Books of Summer 2022
Half of my reads are pictured here. The rest were e-books (represented by the Kindle) or have already had to go back to the library.
My fiction standout was The Language of Flowers, reviewed above. Nonfiction highlights included Forget Me Not and Braiding Sweetgrass, with Tree-Spotting the single most useful book overall. I also enjoyed reading a couple of my selections on location in the Outer Hebrides. The hands-down loser (my only 1-star rating of the year so far, I think?) was Bonsai. As always, there are many books I could have included and wished I’d found the time for, like (on my Kindle) A House among the Trees by Julia Glass, This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan and Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard.
At the start, I was really excited about my flora theme and had lots of tempting options lined up, some of them literally about trees/flowers and others more tangentially related. As the summer went on, though, I wasn’t seeing enough progress so scrambled to substitute in other things I was reading from the library or for paid reviews. This isn’t a problem, per se, but my aim with this challenge has generally been to clear TBR reads from my own shelves. Maybe I didn’t come up with enough short and light options (just two novella-length works and a poetry collection; only the Diffenbaugh was what I’d call a page-turner); also, even with the variety I’d built in, having a few plant quest memoirs got a bit samey.
I’m going to skip having a theme and set myself just one simple rule: any 20 print books from my shelves (NOT review copies). There will then be plenty of freedom to choose and substitute as I go along.
This has been my first read with the Literary Wives online book club. The other members will also be posting their thoughts this week; we consider four books per year in total.
See also the reviews by:
Kay at What Me Read
Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
Naomi at Consumed by Ink
I wrote a general review of The Sentence in April when it was on the Women’s Prize longlist (it has since advanced to the shortlist). This time I’m focusing on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux. The central question we ask about the books we read for Literary Wives is:
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~
There are some unusual aspects to the central marriage in this novel. For one thing, Pollux, a former tribal policeman, was the one to arrest Tookie. For another, although he is a “ceremony man” keeping up Native American rituals (e.g., burning sweetgrass and receiving an eagle corpse from the government to make a fan), he doesn’t believe in ghosts, so Tookie keeps Flora’s haunting of the bookshop from him, as well as from some of her colleagues. For a time, this secret makes Tookie feel like she’s facing the supernatural alone.
Pollux does not, cumulatively, get a lot of page time in the novel, yet I got the sense that he was always there in the background as support. Their relationship is casual and sweet, with lots of banter and a good dollop of sex considering they’re some way into middle age. Clearly, they rely on each other. Their marriage keeps Tookie grounded even when traumatic memories or awful current events rear up.
Now I live as a person with a regular life. A job with regular hours after which I come home to a regular husband. … I live the way a person does who has ceased to dread each day’s ration of time. I live what can be called a normal life only if you’ve always expected to live such a way. If you think you have the right. Work. Love. Food. A bedroom sheltered by a pine tree. Sex and wine.
The thing I knew was that if anything happened to Pollux I would die too. I would be happy to die. I would make sure that I did.
With the latter passage in mind, I did fear the worst when Pollux caught Covid and was hospitalized; I was as relieved as Tookie when he was discharged.
Along with Pollux comes his daughter, Hetta, and her baby son Jarvis. Tookie and Hetta had generally been cool towards each other, but the presence of the baby and the lockdown situation soften things between them. Having never been a maternal sort, Tookie falls completely in love with Jarvis and takes every excuse to babysit him. This gives us a welcome glimpse into another aspect of her character.
I noted a couple of other passages where rituals have practical or metaphorical significance for the central relationship:
At a New Year’s buffet: “a wild rice argument can wreck friendships, kill marriages, if allowed to rage.”
“You let the logs burn long enough so they made a space between them. You gotta keep the fire new. Every piece of wood needs a companion to keep it burning. Now push them together. Not too much. They also need that air. Get them close, but not on top of each other. Just a light connection all the way along. Now you’ll see a row of even flames.”
Pollux is literally instructing Tookie in how to light a fire there, but could just as well be prescribing what makes a marriage work. Connection but a bit of distance; support plus freedom. Their existence as a couple seems to achieve that. They have their individual lives with separate jobs and hobbies, but also a cosy bond that buoys them.
Next book: Red Island House by Andrea Lee in September.
Tomorrow the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve become much more invested in this prize over the past few years and will be following the 2022 race especially closely – look out for a related announcement soon. In recent years the nominees have tended to cluster thematically, which can feel redundant. This longlist has a notably high ghost quotient. Two novels I review below feature unquiet spirits, an appearance by the author, and the magical powers of books. The third is a straightforward contemporary dysfunctional family story.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
My second from Erdrich (I gave Love Medicine, her first novel, 5 stars in 2020). I will be revisiting this in June because it is our first pick for my tenure in the Literary Wives online book club. For that post I’ll focus on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux, which I won’t mention in this more general response. I was worried that a take on very recent events – this is set in Minneapolis between 2019 and 2020 and covers the first six months of the pandemic plus local protests following George Floyd’s murder – would seem either rushed or dated. I’m still unsure how I feel about encountering Covid-19 in fiction (vs. I’ve read 20 or more nonfiction records now), but I think this novel functions as a sturdy time capsule.
Tookie, the narrator, has a tough exterior but a tender heart. When she spent 10 years in prison for a misunderstanding-cum-body snatching, books helped her survive, starting with the dictionary. Once she got out, she translated her love of words into work as a bookseller at Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s Minnesota independent bookshop (Louise herself is an occasional character). Bibliophiles are sure to enjoy the mentions of the books she presses into customers’ hands; there’s also a fun appendix of recommendations on particular topics.
However, the central mystery about Flora, a dead customer who haunts the store until Tookie figures out why she died and how to exorcise her, struck me as silly. I only appreciated this storyline to the extent that it explores authenticity (Flora may have fabricated her Native heritage) and the inescapability of history. I preferred real life: Tookie getting locked down with her stepdaughter and baby grandson and filling book orders from a closed shop.
Erdrich weaves in Indigenous customs naturally and the banter between the characters, including young shop employees, makes this hip and lighthearted, even as it deals with serious subjects. I smiled at the bookish lingo, like Tookie’s division of her reading into a Lazy Stack and a Hard Stack (“books I would avoid reading until some wellspring of mental energy was uncapped” – my occasional and set-aside titles could comprise the latter) and the “cowbirds,” self-published titles secreted on the shelves that aren’t found until inventory day. There’s also an excellent passage on novellas that I’ll be bringing out in November.
Like a vintage armchair, this is a little overstuffed, but so comfortable you’ll want to stay a while. (See also Laura’s review.) (Public library)
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~
Artists, dysfunctional families, and limited settings (here, one crumbling London house and its environs; and about two days across one weekend) are irresistible elements for me, and I don’t mind a work being peopled with mostly unlikable characters. That’s just as well, because the narrative orbits Ray Hanrahan, a monstrous narcissist who insists that his family put his painting career above all else. His wife, Lucia, is a sculptor who has always sacrificed her own art to ensure Ray’s success. But now Lucia, having survived breast cancer, has the chance to focus on herself. She’s tolerated his extramarital dalliances all along; why not see where her crush on MP Priya Menon leads? What with fresh love and the offer of her own exhibition in Venice, maybe she truly can start over in her fifties.
Ray and Lucia’s three grown children, Leah, Patrick and Jess, are all home for Ray’s new exhibition. They’re mere sketches: Leah is Ray’s staunchest supporter and is infatuated with the no-show caterer; Patrick’s mental health is shaky, interfering with his job prospects; Jess, a teacher in Edinburgh, is pregnant but not sure she’s committed to her boyfriend long term. I wanted more depth from all the characters, but especially the offspring. I also expected a climactic late scene on Hampstead Heath to come to more.
Still, the build-up to the exhibit (followed by a laughably pitiful reveal) and Lucia’s inner life form an adequately strong foundation for Mendelson’s sardonic prose. The dialogue, full of interruptions, is true to life. This is her fifth novel and called to mind Jami Attenberg’s and Claire Fuller’s work. (Liz found shades of Iris Murdoch. Susan loved it, too.) I wouldn’t say I’m compelled to seek out more by Mendelson, but this was a solid read. (Public library)
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favourite novels of the century (and one of my most popular Goodreads reviews ever), My Year of Meats was a terrific backlist read a couple of summers ago, and I’m eager to catch up on All Over Creation. So I’d built up this fourth Ozeki novel in my head, thinking a library setting and magic realist elements presaged something deliciously Murakami-esque.
What I actually found, having limped through it off and on for seven months, was something of a disappointment. A frank depiction of the mental health struggles of the Oh family? Great. A paean to how books and libraries can save us by showing us a way out of our own heads? A-OK. The problem is with the twee way that The Book narrates Benny’s story and engages him in a conversation about fate versus choice.
When Kenji Oh, a jazz musician, is run over by a chicken truck, Annabelle finds herself a single mother to Benny, a troubled teen who starts to hear everyday objects speaking to him. His voices and Annabelle’s hoarding habit jeopardize the viability of their household: Benny spends time on a psychiatric hospital ward for minors and Annabelle is threatened with eviction. For Benny, the library and the acquaintances he makes there – a fellow pedi-psych patient named Alice who calls herself The Aleph, an Eastern European philosopher who goes by The Bottleman (= Slavoj Žižek?), even the Ozeki figure tapping away on her laptop – may be his salvation; for Annabelle, it could be the book Tidy Magic (modelled on Marie Kondo’s work), written by a Buddhist nun. But until then, their stories get very dark indeed.
Concern for the principal pair and their relationship kept me reading even though this is too long and I wearied of Ozeki’s habit of literalizing metaphors (books speaking to people; being crushed by one’s belongings; crows playing a protective role). I’m still sympathetic to Ozeki’s aims, even if she doesn’t quite pull it all off here. If I pit the rather similar The Sentence and The Book of Form and Emptiness against each other, Erdrich comes out ahead.
With thanks to Canongate for the proof copy for review.
I’ve gotten to six books from the longlist so far and have a few more on order at the library. The others I’ve read, with ratings and links to my reviews, are:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
I’m also partway through The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton, which is enjoyable enough but, alas, suffers in comparison to Daisy Jones and the Six, whose format (a composite oral history of a fictional 1960s/70s musical act) it repeats. The addition of the race issue doesn’t feel sufficient to call it original.
I’ve also DNFed a few from the longlist, two of them multiple times, so I have my fingers crossed that they don’t advance!
- The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
- The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
- Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
My attitude to the rest of the longlist is…
- The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – No plans to read.
- Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – I might read this from the library. I’m leery of dystopias, but I’m there for a chorus of cows.
- Careless by Kirsty Capes – No plans to read.
- Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – I would happily read it if it’s shortlisted, but at over 500 pages I fear it’ll be too dense.
- Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – Maybe. Sounds like pretty standard Sarah Winman-type stuff, but it could go down well with a book club.
- This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – No plans to read.
- Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – I was actually pretty keen to read this one, so I have it on reserve at the library. Egyptian mythology makes a change from the overdone Greeks, and the Washington, D.C. setting is a big draw. Laura’s review has tempered my expectations, but I might still give it a go.
My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé
My predicted shortlist:
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
An overall winner? Gosh, it’s too early to tell. But maybe The Sentence, Sorrow and Bliss or The Island of Missing Trees.
See also Laura’s shortlist predictions.
What have you read from the longlist so far?
Which of these books are calling to you?
This post is an annual tradition for me, somehow.* Love, whether erotic, romantic or familial, turns up in the titles of these three works by women writers: poems, short stories and a novella.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (2020)
Diaz, raised on a Mojave reservation in California, won a Pulitzer Prize for this honey-thick exploration of queer Native American identity. There are lustful moments aplenty here—
My lover comes to me like darkfall—long,
and through my open window. Mullion, transom. […]
I keep time on the hematite clocks of her shoulders.
(from “Like Church”)
—but the mineral-heavy imagery (“the agate cups of your palms …the bronzed lamp of my breast”) is so weirdly archaic and the vocabulary so technical that I kept thinking of the Song of Solomon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not the model I expected to find.
So I ended up preferring the forthright political poems about contemporary Native American life. Police shootings, pipeline protests: it’s a fact that her people are disproportionately persecuted (see “American Arithmetic”). Her brother’s drug abuse and mental illness also form a repeating subject (e.g., “It Was the Animals”).
The collection is as much of a love poem to land as it is to a woman, with water bodies described as affectionately as female bodies. “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also, it is a part of my body” is the opening line of “The First Water Is the Body”; see also “exhibits from the American Water Museum.”
My favourite single poem, “If I Should Come Upon Your House Lonely in the West Texas Desert,” is sexy but also, charmingly, features echoes of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”:
I will swing my lasso of headlights
across your front porch,
let it drop like a rope of knotted light
at your feet.
While I put the car in park,
you will tie and tighten the loop
of light around your waist—
and I will be there with the other end
wrapped three times
around my hips horned with loneliness.
I will lie down in you.
Eat my meals at the red table of your heart.
Each steaming bowl will be, Just right.
I will eat it all up,
break all your chairs to pieces.
(New purchase, Awesomebooks.com)
Half in Love by Maile Meloy (2002)
Meloy’s was a new name for me when I picked this up as part of a bargain secondhand book haul last year, but she’s actually published 10 books and is esteemed in literary circles; Ann Patchett even dedicated her latest release, These Precious Days, to her.
Meloy is from Montana and most of the 14 stories in this, her debut collection, are set in the contemporary American West among those who make their living from the outdoors, diving to work on hydroelectric dams or keeping cattle and horses. However, one of the more memorable stories, “Aqua Boulevard,” is set in Paris, where a geriatric father can’t tamp down his worries for his offspring.
The few historical stories have a melancholy air, with protagonists whose star has faded. There’s the brief, touching portrait of an outmoded career in “The Ice Harvester” and the secondhand reminiscences of being in late-colonial diplomatic service in the Middle East in “Last of the White Slaves”; “Red” is about an American soldier stationed in London during the Second World War.
Crime and its consequences recur. I loved the opening story, “Tome,” about a lawyer whose client wants her to keep in touch after he goes to jail. Teenage girls are the title characters in a couple of stories; “Ranch Girl” is in the second person. “Kite Whistler Aquamarine” is a heartbreaker about a filly born premature one winter. “Paint” was the standout for me: it’s pretty terrifying what a wife’s temporary attitude of neglect leads to when her luckless husband undertakes some DIY.
As is usual with a collection, a few of the stories left little impression on me. But there’s sufficient range and depth here to induce me to seek out more of Meloy’s work. I can recommend this to readers of Claire Boyles, David Guterson, Lily King, Jane Smiley (see below!) and David Vann. (Secondhand purchase, 2nd & Charles)
“Be interesting in your twenties,” Suzy says. “Otherwise you’ll want to do it in your thirties or forties, when it wreaks all kinds of havoc, and you’ve got a husband and kids.”
Eugénie invited my husband to Greece every summer because she wanted him to publish her memoir. She had lived a remarkable life but didn’t have a remarkable book, and it dragged through slow ghostwritten revisions. Every year, at work in the hot city, I thought of blue water and white bougainvillea and forgot how exhausting it was to be her guest, to stay in favor and say the right things. So each summer we would arrive, look at the new draft, give careful suggestions that would not be taken, and find ourselves on the terrace waiting for her to trip mercifully off to bed.
Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley (1990)
This is one of Smiley’s earlier works and feels a little generic, like she hadn’t yet developed a signature voice or themes. One summer, a 52-year-old mother of five prepares for her adult son Michael’s return from India after two years of teaching. His twin brother, Joe, will pick him up from the airport later on. Through conversations over dinner and a picnic in the park, the rest of the family try to work out how Michael has changed during his time away. “I try to accept the mystery of my children, of the inexplicable ways they diverge from parental expectations, of how, however much you know or remember of them, they don’t quite add up.” The narrator recalls her marriage-ending affair and how she coped afterwards. Michael drops a bombshell towards the end of the 91-page novella. Readable yet instantly forgettable, alas. I bought it as part of a dual volume with Good Will, which I don’t expect I’ll read. (Secondhand purchase, Bookbarn International)
If you read just one … It’s got to be Postcolonial Love Poem, the most Eros-appropriate of the three by far.
*I’m really not a Valentine’s Day person, yet this is the sixth year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021).
Read any books about love lately?
The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.
Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?
The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.
It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.
But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.
My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).
Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.
Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.
There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.
Have you read anything from the Booker shortlist?
Which book do you expect to win?
I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn
Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”
In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.
Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.
With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.
Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock
Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.
It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.
This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall
[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]
Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.
Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.
With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.
You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.
With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’m very stingy with my 5-star ratings, so when I give one out you can be assured that a book is truly special. These three are all backlist reads – look out for my Classic of the Month post next week for a fourth that merits 5 stars – that are well worth seeking out. Out of the 50 books I’ve read so far this year, these are far and away the best.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne (1995)
I plucked this Wigtown purchase at random from my shelves and it ended up being just what I needed to lift me out of January’s funk. Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder, “rare, life-changing moments of seeing or hearing things with heightened perception,” is what makes us human. Call it an epiphany (as Joyce did), call it a moment of vision (as Woolf did), call it a feeling of communion with the universe; whatever you call it, you know what he is talking about. It’s that fleeting sense that you are right where you should be, that you have tapped into some universal secret of how to be in the world.
Mayne believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to wonder by encouraging us to pay close attention. His frame of reference is wide, with lots of quotations and poetry extracts; he has a special love for Turner, Monet and Van Gogh and for Rilke, Blake and Hopkins. Mayne was an Anglican priest and Dean of Westminster, so he comes at things from a Christian perspective, but most of his advice is generically spiritual and not limited to a particular religion. There are about 50 pages towards the end that are specifically about Jesus; one could skip those if desired.
The book is a series of letters written to his grandchildren from a chalet in the Swiss Alps one May to June. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, the effect is of a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages. I don’t often feel awake to life’s wonder – I get lost in its tedium and unfairness instead – but this book gave me something to aspire to.
A few of the many wonderful quotes:
“The mystery is that the created world exists. It is: I am. The mystery is life itself, together with the fact that however much we seek to explore and to penetrate them, the impenetrable shadows remain.”
“Once wonder goes; once mystery is dismissed; once the holy and the numinous count for nothing; then human life becomes cheap and it is possible with a single bullet to shatter that most miraculous thing, a human skull, with scarcely a second thought. Wonder and compassion go hand-in-hand.”
“this recognition of my true worth is something entirely different from selfishness, that turned-in-upon-myselfness of the egocentric. … It is a kind of blasphemy to view ourselves with so little compassion when God views us with so much.”
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross (2007)
When she was training to become a doctor in Rhode Island, Montross and her anatomy lab classmates were assigned an older female cadaver they named Eve. Eve taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a published poet, as evident in her lyrical exploration of the attraction and strangeness of working with the remnants of someone who was once alive. She sees the contrasts, the danger, the theatre, the wonder of it all:
“Stacked beside me on my sage green couch: this spinal column that wraps into a coil without muscle to hold it upright, hands and feet tied together with floss, this skull hinged and empty. A man’s teeth.”
“When I look at the tissues and organs responsible for keeping me alive, I am not reassured. The wall of the atrium is the thickness of an old T-shirt, and yet a tear in it means instant death. The aorta is something I have never thought about before, but if mine were punctured, I would exsanguinate, a deceptively beautiful word”
All through her training, Montross has to remind herself to preserve her empathy despite a junior doctor’s fatigue and the brutality of the work (“The force necessary in the dissections feels barbarous”), especially as the personal intrudes on her career through her grandparents’ decline and her plans to start a family with her wife – which I gather is more of a theme in her next book, Falling into the Fire, about her work as a psychiatrist. I get through a whole lot of medical reads, as any of my regular readers will know, but this one is an absolute stand-out for its lyrical language, clarity of vision, honesty and compassion.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
Had I finished this late last year instead of in the second week of January, it would have been vying with Lauren Groff’s Florida for the #1 spot on my Best Fiction of 2018 list.
The title – presumably inspired by both Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, California (“There is no there there”) and the Radiohead song – is no soft pat of reassurance. It’s falsely lulling; if anything, it’s a warning that there is no consolation to be found here. Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least, with alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence as recurring sources of trauma. They have ongoing struggles with grief, mental illness and the far-reaching effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, alternating between the first and third person (plus one second person chapter). As we see them preparing for the powwow, whether to dance and drum, meet estranged relatives, or get up to no good, we start to work out the links between everyone. I especially liked how Orange unobtrusively weaves in examples of modern technology like 3D printing and drones.
The writing in the action sequences is noticeably weaker, and I wasn’t fully convinced by the sentimentality-within-tragedy of the ending, but I was awfully impressed with this novel overall. I’d recommend it to readers of David Chariandy’s Brother and especially Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It was my vote for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize (for the best first book, of any genre, published in 2018), and I was pleased that it went on to win.