Back in January I had the idea to catch up as much as I can on previous Wellcome Book Prize long- and shortlists while the Prize is on hiatus. I decided to start with a pair of novels about polio from my public library system: The Golden Age by Joan London and Nemesis by Philip Roth. The latter, especially, has taken on new significance due to its evocation of a time of panic over a public health crisis (see this article, but beware spoilers). On a fellow book reviewer’s recommendation, I also took Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks off the shelf and read it at the same time as the Roth.
The Golden Age by Joan London (2014)
[First published in the UK in 2016; on the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 longlist]
The Golden Age was a real children’s polio hospital in Western Australia, but London has peopled it with her own fictional cast. In 1953–4, Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs, polio patients aged 12 going on 13, fall in love in the most improbable of circumstances: “The backs of their hands brushed as they walked side by side on their crutches. Their bloodstreams recharged by exercise and fresh air, they experienced a fiery burst of pleasure.”
Frank is much the more vibrant character thanks to his family’s wartime past in Hungary and his budding vocation as a poet, which was spurred on by his friendship with Sullivan, a fellow inmate at his previous rehabilitation center. The narrative spends time with the nurses, parents and other patients but keeps coming back to Frank and Elsa. However, Chapter 7, with Frank and his mother Ida still back in Budapest, was my favorite.
I was reminded of Tracy Farr’s work (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt), especially the look back from decades later. This has a strong premise and some great lines, but for me there was something slightly lacking in the execution.
There was beauty everywhere, strange beauty, even—especially?—in a children’s polio hospital.
Polio is like love, Frank says … Years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.
Nemesis by Philip Roth (2010)
[On the Wellcome Book Prize 2011 shortlist]
In the summer of 1944 Newark, New Jersey is hit hard by polio. As a local playground director, 23-year-old Bucky Cantor is distressed when several of his charges become ill; a couple of them even die within a matter of days.
At first Bucky, whose poor eyesight kept him out of the War, sees his job as his own field of duty, but gradually fear and helplessness drive him away. He escapes to the Pocono Mountains to join his fiancée, Marcia, as a summer camp counselor, but soon realizes the futility of trying to outrun a virus. Unable to accept the randomness of bad luck, he blames God – and himself – for the epidemic’s spread.
Despite our better general understanding of epidemiology today, there were still many passages in this novel that rang true for me as they picture life proceeding as normal until paranoia starts to take hold:
Despite polio’s striking in the neighborhood, the store-lined main street was full of people out doing their Saturday grocery shopping…
(Bucky) Look, you mustn’t be eaten up with worry … What’s important is not to infect the children with the germ of fear. We’ll come through this, believe me. We’ll all do our bit and stay calm and do everything we can to protect the children, and we’ll all come through this together.
The important thing, he said, was always to wash your hands after you handled paper money or coins. What about the mail, someone else said … What are you going to do, somebody retorted, suspend delivering the mail? The whole city would come to a halt. Six or seven weeks ago they would have been talking about the war news.
Roth really captures the atmosphere of alarm and confusion, but doesn’t always convey historical and medical information naturally, sometimes resorting to paragraphs of context and representative conversations like in the last quote above. I also wasn’t sure about the use of a minor character (revealed on page 108 to be one of Bucky’s playground kids and a polio patient) as the narrator. This seemed to me to make Bucky more of a symbolic hero than a genuine character. Still, this was a timely and riveting read.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision was made to quarantine it. A benevolent landowner arranged for regular deliveries of food and other supplies to just outside the parish boundaries. The villagers made an oath that no one would leave until the pestilence was eradicated. One year later, two-thirds of its residents were dead. Brooks imagines that the “plague seeds” came to the village in a bolt of cloth that was delivered from London to the tailor George Viccars, who lodged with widow Anna Frith. Viccars is the first victim and the disease quickly spreads outward from Anna’s home.
Anna barely has time to grieve her own losses before she’s called into service: along with the minister’s wife, Elinor Mompellion, she steps in as a midwife, herbal healer and even a miner. The village succumbs to several sobering trajectories. Suspicion of women’s traditional wisdom leads some to take vigilante action against presumed witches. Unscrupulous characters like Anna’s father, who sets up as a gravedigger, try to make a profit out of others’ suffering. Frustration with the minister’s apparent ineffectuality attracts others to forms of religious extremism. Like Bucky, people cannot help but see the hand of God here.
Perhaps what I was most missing in the London and Roth novels (and in Hamnet, which bears such striking thematic similarities to Year of Wonders) was intimate first-person narration, which is just what you get here from Anna. The voice and the historical recreation are flawless, and again there were so many passages that felt apt:
Stay here, in the place that you know, and in the place where you are known. … Stay here, and here we will be for one another.
the current times did seem to ask us all for every kind of sacrifice
(once they start meeting for church in a meadow) We placed ourselves so that some three yards separated each family group, believing this to be sufficient distance to avoid the passing of infection.
Yet it is a good day, for the simple fact that no one died upon it. We are brought to a sorry state, that we measure what is good by such a shortened yardstick.
I’ve docked a half-star only because of a far-fetched ending that reminded me of that to The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Apart from that, this is just what I want from my historical fiction.
Are you doing any reading about epidemics?
The wedding of a college friend – who I calculated I’ve known at least half my life – was the excuse we needed to book a trip back to the States for the last two weeks of May. Along with the classy nuptials in the Fell’s Point area of Baltimore, we enjoyed a day’s sightseeing in Philadelphia, a couple of outings to watch birds and other wildlife on Cape May (a migration hotspot in New Jersey), two meet-ups with other friends, and plenty of relaxation time with my mom and sister, including a Memorial Day picnic at my mom’s retirement community and a tour of Antietam Battlefield. It was much hotter than anticipated, including some days in the high 80s or even 90s, and the hayfever, ticks and mosquitoes were bad, too, but we survived.
While back in Maryland I continued the intermittent downsizing process I’ve been going through for a while now. After being on the market for nearly a year, my family home finally sold and went to closing while we were over there. So that provided a scrap of closure, but my current estrangement from my father (we don’t even know where he’s living) means there’s a lot of continuing uncertainty.
In any case, I managed to reduce the number of boxes I’m storing with my sister from 29 to 20 by recycling lots of my old schoolwork, consolidating my mementos, reselling one box of books and donating another, donating a box of figurines and decorative bottles to a thrift store, displaying some at my mom’s place, giving away a few trinkets to a friend’s kids, and packing a bunch of stuff – photo albums and decorations as well as 64 books – in our various suitcases and hand luggage to take back to the UK.
And I also acquired more books, of course! A whopping 46 of these were free: eight review copies were waiting for me at my mom’s place; three were from the outdoor free bin at 2nd & Charles, a secondhand bookstore; one was found in a Little Free Library near our friends’ place in New Jersey (Emerald City by Jennifer Egan, not pictured); and the rest were from The Book Thing of Baltimore, a legendary volunteer-run free bookshop. I mostly raided the biography section for an excellent selection of women’s life writing; the fiction is unalphabetized so harder to find anything in, but I picked up a few novels, too. My only purchases were new (remainder) copies of one novel and one memoir from Dollar Tree. Total book spending on the trip: just $2.12.
What I Read:
Two that I’d already started but finished on the plane ride over:
- The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: (As featured in my spring reading list.) “Love and flowers, death and flowers.” Poetic writing about small-town Minnesota life, a tense relationship with her late mother, and her late father’s flower shop.
- The Girls by Lori Lansens: I love reading about sister relationships, and the Darlen girls’ situation is an extreme case of love and jealousy given that they literally can’t get away from each other. Not as good as the two other conjoined-twin novels I’ve read, Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, but I would read more from Lansens, a solid Oprah Book Club sort of author.
Three review books that will be featuring here in the near future:
- Goulash by Brian Kimberling
- Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal
A few quick reads:
- A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir by Sandra Gail Lambert: (A proof copy passed on by an online book reviewing friend.) A memoir in 29 essays about living with the effects of severe polio. Most of the pieces were previously published in literary magazines. While not all are specifically about the author’s disability, the challenges of life in a wheelchair seep in whether she’s writing about managing a feminist bookstore or going on camping and kayaking adventures in Florida’s swamps. I was reminded at times of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
- No Happy Endings: A Memoir by Nora McInerny: (Borrowed from my sister.) I didn’t appreciate this as much as the author’s first memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh, though it’s in the same style: lots of short, witty but bittersweet essays reflecting on life’s losses. Within a year of being widowed by cancer, she met a new partner and soon was – surprise! – pregnant with his baby. Together they formed a blended family of four children ranging from 0 to 15 and two wounded adults. McInerny also writes about her newfound spirituality and feminism. The problem with the essay format is that she cycles through aspects of the same stories multiple times.
- Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey: (Free from 2nd & Charles.) Trethewey writes beautifully disciplined verse about her mixed-race upbringing in Mississippi, her mother’s death and the South’s legacy of racial injustice. She occasionally rhymes, but more often employs forms that involve repeated lines or words. The title sequence concerns a black Civil War regiment in Louisiana. Two favorites from this Pulitzer-winning collection by a former U.S. poet laureate were “Letter” and “Miscegenation”; stand-out passages include “In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm” (from “Pilgrimage”) and “I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime // of me — mulatto, half-breed” (from “South”).
I also read the first half or more of: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, my June book club book; Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, a journalist’s travelogue of his foodie journeys with René Redzepi of Noma fame, coming out in July; and the brand-new novel In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow – these last two are for upcoming BookBrowse reviews.
But the book I was most smug to have on my reading list for the trip was the recent novel Cape May by Chip Cheek. What could be more perfect for reading on location? I asked myself. Unfortunately, it stood out for the wrong reasons. In October 1957 a young pair of virgins, Effie and Henry, travel from Georgia to New Jersey for an off-season honeymoon in her uncle’s vacation home. They’re happy enough with each other but underwhelmed with the place (strangely, this matched my experience of Cape May), and even consider going home early until they fall in with Clara, a friend of Effie’s cousin; Clara’s lover, Max; and Max’s younger sister, Alma. Effie and Henry join the others for nightly drunken revelry.
[SPOILERS!] As the weeks pass Effie, ill and dejected, almost seems to disappear as Cheek delves into Henry’s besotted shenanigans, described in unnecessarily explicit sexual detail. When Effie makes a bid or two for her own sexual freedom late on, it only emphasizes the injustice of spending so much time foregrounding Henry’s perspective. Despite the strength of the period atmosphere and seaside location, this ends up being dull and dated. If you’re after a typically ‘trashy’ beach read and don’t mind lots of sex scenes, you may get on with it better than I did.
Vineland, New Jersey was on the way from our friends’ house to Cape May, so we stopped to take my proof copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered to its spiritual home. Alas, Vineland is an utterly boring small American town. However, Mary Treat at least appears on a painted mural on a building on the main street. The Historical Society, where Kingsolver did her research, was closed, but we photographed the outside.
What’s the last book you read ‘on location’? Did it work out well for you?
On Wednesday we got back from two weeks in the States. We were so busy catching up with family and friends we hadn’t seen in a year and a half or more that my reading really slowed down: aside from the three books I took on the plane and finished within my first week, I only read another two books (not counting two during the trip back). Alas, I seem to be in a bit of a rut: everything I read was 3 stars. I haven’t finished anything I’d rate higher than that since late May. I do hope I can break that pattern before June ends!
What I Read:
In Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, Bennie Ford writes an extended letter during an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago, ostensibly to demand his $392.68 back, but really to tell his life story. His daughter is getting married in California tomorrow; it’s Bennie’s chance to make things right after years of estrangement. Will he make it to the wedding or not? The structure of the book means it doesn’t particularly matter, and I stopped caring a little bit as it went on. The sections of a novel Bennie is translating from the Polish felt irrelevant to me. Still, amusing, and a good one to read in the airport and on a plane.
Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym: I’m completely unmusical, so I enjoyed learning about what it’s like to be a violin virtuoso and a child prodigy, and what it means to fall in love with an instrument. Kym also puts things into the context of being a Korean immigrant to London. The central event of the book is having her Stradivarius, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, stolen from a train station café in late 2010. It’s a brief and fairly immersive story, but the style is melodramatic and choppy at times.
Back When We Were Grown-ups was my fifth Anne Tyler novel. Rebecca is in her fifties and the pillar of the large Davitch family, even though she only married into it six years before her husband’s sudden death. The Davitches are always renting out their home for their party business, and Rebecca has over the years developed a joyous persona that she’s not sure is really her true self. What would life have been like if she hadn’t become a stepmother to Joe’s three girls but instead married her college sweetheart, Will? While this is funny and warm, and a cozy read in the best possible way, it didn’t really stand out for me.
Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell, first published in 1954, tells of his animal collecting in Guiana, South America. The highlight is pipa toad reproduction and birth.
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin is a very atmospheric read, set on a South Carolina island with a haunted cottage where a family was swept away by a hurricane. However, I thought the rhythm of the young narrator’s languid summer days caring for his great-aunt became tedious, and I struggled to buy how self-aware he was meant to be of his fragile mental state at the age of 11. It’s reminiscent of John Irving (quirky secondary characters and so on) but without the same spark. I was sent a review copy for BookBrowse but found I couldn’t recommend it with 4 stars or higher.
To my surprise, I completely went off Kindle reading on this trip until the flight back, when I raced through Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks, a sweet but inconsequential graphic novel about the salmon’s life cycle. I also started the poetry collection Fast by Jorie Graham but left it unfinished.
Two more DNFs from the trip were The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I may try again with both in the future. Alas, library reading was a total wash: Hourglass by Dani Shapiro didn’t arrive in time, I abandoned the Coates, and I didn’t feel in the mood for advice letters so ended up not even starting Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.
My enjoyable read on the long journey back was Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Janzen gave the Mennonite tradition she’d forsaken a second look after her life fell apart in her early forties: her husband left her for Bob, whom he met on a gay dating site; and she was in a serious car accident. It’s more in the form of linked autobiographical essays than a straight memoir, so she keeps cycling round to some of the same themes, and it gets less laugh-out-loud funny as it goes on. Still, I was impressed by how the author has managed to pull what’s good from experiences most would consider disastrous. (I also read the first third of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.)
Now that I’m home I’ve started a huge pile of review books and library books and instead of the 1–3 books at a time I was reading while we were away I’m back up to my more usual 14.
What I Bought:
Day 2: A stop at my parents’ local Dollar Tree to stock up on greetings cards for the year’s events (2 for $1!) also brought some unexpectedly good book finds. [Not pictured: a paperback of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, our favorite of his novels.] Total spend: $3.18.
Day 4: The obligatory visit to Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Maryland, one of my happy places.
Day 5: A trip to bookstore chain 2nd & Charles in Hagerstown, MD. Total spend (minus my trade-in of various books and CDs): $5.19.
Day 6: A book of Mary Oliver poems from the Goodwill store in Westminster, MD.
Day 14: Some bargains from a thrift store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where we met up with my friend and her family while they were on holiday. Total spend: $4.50.
I also managed to snag a couple of Crown ARCs that are not out until October.
The state of my closet back in the States (most of those boxes contain books):
Other Bookish Sightings:
A Little Free Library at my parents’ local organic supermarket. I dropped off a few proof copies before I left.
The Peabody Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
A trip to Mermaid Books in Williamsburg, Virginia (overpriced – no purchases), where I spotted an amusing cover on Anne Tyler’s first novel – she still has the same hairdo!
Ephemera in two of my purchases.
Other highlights of the trip:
- Meeting my sister’s fiancé (!) and his kids.
- Going to an alpaca farm with my sister and nephews.
- Surprising my mom with her early 70th birthday gift: a mother–daughters trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for dinner and a showing of Shear Madness, a long-running improvisational murder mystery with audience participation.
- Exploring Williamsburg (and Jamestown Island) for the first time since I was a kid.
- A day trip to Cape May, New Jersey – a place to go back to, methinks.
- Plus all our meet-ups, however brief, with friends.
- Not forgetting the total of seven cats and two dogs we got to spend time with.
- Two weeks of doing absolutely no work. I didn’t miss it for a second.
One last book haul photo: These were the review copies (top two) and giveaway books awaiting me when I got back to the UK. (I won the Schaub from Liz’s blog; I’m on a great run with Goodreads giveaways at the moment: along with these Sedaris and Whittal titles, I have new books by Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anne de Courcy on the way.)