Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy for a previous generation, September 11, 2001 was a landmark day in our shared history. I was two weeks into my freshman year of college and getting ready to head out to a 9:30 seminar when my roommate returned early from her first class. “All these planes flying into buildings – I’m freaking out!” she cried, and turned our tiny desktop TV set to a news station.
At that point it was unclear what was going on, so I dutifully trudged out across the quad linking the residence halls to the academic buildings, anticipating a normal day of classes. On the way I encountered small groups of somber students, and was alarmed to see my friend and “Big Sister” from the junior class weeping onto her boyfriend’s shoulder – her dad worked at the Pentagon, and she hadn’t yet heard that he was okay. When I entered the lecture hall it was clear no regular work was going to happen that day; I was one of only a handful of students who’d shown up, and our English professor, too, was engrossed by the rippling montage of rubble and smoke being projected onto a screen behind him.
As the anniversary approached this year, I picked up a coffee table book of photos, Reuters’ September 11: A Testimony from the library and was struck by how dated everything appeared. For an event so fresh in my memory, it actually looks like something that happened a long time ago thanks to everything from the fashions and car designs to the photographic quality. You also get the sense that, even in the early Internet age, things like missing person posters and public tributes to the dead were primarily paper-based then. The photos barely capture the scope of the devastation. One image of firefighters among the wreckage looks like a film set or architect’s model, the human figures like ants among the dusty girders. This was published in late 2001, so it was put together quickly. Photographs tell the story, with extremely brief captions on facing pages. Nearly half of the length is devoted to documenting the three crash sites, with the rest chronicling memorial services, national and international commemorations, and New York City gradually returning to business as usual.
On the way back from our mother’s wedding this summer, my sister and brother-in-law and I passed the entrance to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania so drove in for a look. The 1,000-acre site is administered by the National Park Service. On the airless June day we were there, the Tower of Voices was not making its eerie music, but it was still a peaceful spot for reflection. You can listen to a recording of the windchimes on the website. There is also a visitor center with a permanent exhibition that we will have to go back and see another time.
I also recently reread Rowan Williams’s superb book-length essay Writing in the Dust (2002), which I’d read twice before. Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on 9/11. He was, in fact, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he was part of a group recording theological conversations to be used for educational purposes. When the planes hit and the air filled with dust and smoke, he did the same as everyone else: he quickly evacuated, ensured everyone was safe, and then watched, listened, and prayed. And in the months that followed he thought about what he’d seen that day, and what his experience had taught him about suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God.
Writing well before military action against Iraq began, Williams cautioned against labeling the Other as Evil and responding in a simple spirit of retribution. Prophets’ words are never welcome, of course, and time has shown that Western policies have only made things worse. I must have read this from a university library; I then did a peculiar (and probably illegal, in copyright terms) thing and typed out every single word of it into a Word file so I could keep it forever.
Here are some of Williams’s words of wisdom:
“The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.”
My original rating (2013):
My rating now:
Other 9/11-themed reading I have done:
The Second Plane by Martin Amis (2008)
A famously bad-tempered English novelist who now lives in New York, Amis here presents a collection of 14 fictional and factual responses to 9/11. The essays are much stronger than the stories (a tale about Saddam Hussein’s son’s body double is downright weird), although it might be argued that Amis’s general understanding of Islam is fatally skewed. Opinionated, bold, and polarizing, these pieces ponder the symbolism and ideology of a day that changed the world.
The wonderful Annie Dillard’s post-9/11 essay “This is the Life,” available to read here, is another perceptive look at our response to tragedy, asking whether we are going to accept what “everyone” thinks about us vs. them and the value of human lives: “Everyone knows…the enemies are barbarians [but] our lives and our deaths count equally.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
Oskar Schell is a tremendously precocious nine-year-old who’s trying to come to terms with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He sets off on a quest to find the lock that takes the key he found in his dad’s closet. This light-hearted search takes him all over New York’s five boroughs, but in the end Oskar is little closer to discovering who his dad really was or how exactly he died. All he has left of him is that same panicked message on the answering machine, left sometime during the morning of September 11th. By denying neat narrative closure, Foer avoids sentimentality at the same time as he affirms the tragedy’s effect on a nation and on individuals.
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (2002)
On September 12th, 2001, Kingsolver sat down at her computer to write up some thoughts about the previous day’s tragedy. A newspaper had asked her for a short response, but as she sat and typed she found that the words kept coming, in essay after essay. The title piece in this collection, and several others like it, might make for occasionally uncomfortable reading, as Kingsolver questions automatic all-American responses like indiscriminate flag-waving and “we’ll hunt those terrorists down” vigilante justice. She asks how someone who loves her country can criticize its tenets and actions without being branded a traitor. “My country, right or wrong,” the saying goes – fair enough, but the truest patriot is one who loves her country enough to hold it to the highest moral standards, demanding it live up to its democratic ideals.
The Submission by Amy Waldman (2011)
Waldman’s debut imagines what would have happened had New Yorkers chosen a 9/11 memorial design as soon as 2003 and – crucially – had the anonymous selection turned out to be by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. His memorial garden is rich in possible meanings and influences. When a member of the memorial selection jury leaks the information about the designer’s name to the press, however, all hell breaks loose, and perfectly nice, reasonable people start to display some ugly bigotry. As the clever double meaning of the title suggests, Waldman has educated herself about Islam’s doctrines. She includes an impressive range of characters and opinions in this canny psychological exploration.
(Most of the above text is recycled from an article I wrote for Bookkaholic web magazine (now defunct) in 2013.)
I can think of at least six more novels I’ve read that would be appropriate for this list, yet even including them here would be a spoiler. Generally, if you’re reading a novel set in New York City in 2000 or so, you should be prepared…
This year I meant to read Mitchell Zuckoff’s comprehensive journalistic study, Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, but ran out of time. Eleanor highly recommends the audiobook of the oral history The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff. This Kirkus list has two additional nonfiction suggestions.
Where were you on 9/11?
Have you read anything related to it?
I’m catching up on blogs and getting back into the swing of work after a week’s staycation hosting my mom and stepdad and taking them on daytrips to lots of local sites: Highclere Castle (“Downton Abbey”), Bath, Avebury, the south coast, Sandham Memorial Chapel, the Kennet & Avon canal, and Mottisfont Abbey.
Today’s contributions to my colour-themed summer reading are both nonfiction: a forthright memoir from a female surgeon and a light-hearted record of multiple seasons of hawk-watching in Central Park.
Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (2009)
Trying to keep herself alert seven hours into assisting with a neck surgery, Weston recites to herself a list of dyes used to stain tissues for microscopy: methylene blue, acridine orange, saffron, malachite green, Tyrian purple, Hoffman’s violet, direct red. This is how the book opens, and of course, red being the colour of blood, it shows up frequently in what follows. She tells (anonymized) stories of people she has treated, of all ages and from all backgrounds, both during her training and after she specialized in ear, nose and throat surgery.
Like Henry Marsh in Admissions, she expresses regret for moments when she was in a rush or trying to impress seniors and didn’t give the best patient-focused care she could have. Some patients even surprise her into changing her mind, such as about the morality of plastic surgery.
The accounts of individual surgeries are detailed and sometimes gory: morbidly delicious for me, but definitely not for the squeamish.
Blood trickled in a stream down the inside of my wrist onto the plasticky gown, and then dripped off me and onto the drape. It collected in a green valley and was congealing there like a small garnet jelly. I lost my balance slightly as the breast was cut off.
Surgery is still a male-dominated field, and I’ve sensed unpleasant machismo from surgeon authors before (Stephen Westaby’s The Knife’s Edge). As a woman in medicine, Weston is keenly aware of the difficult balance to be struck between confidence and compassion.
To be a good doctor, you have to master a paradoxical art. You need to get close to a patient so that they will tell you things and you will understand what they mean. But you also have to keep distant enough not to get too affected.
It is no longer enough to be technically proficient; nowadays, we need to be nice. And this presents the modern surgeon with a great challenge: how to combine a necessary degree of toughness with an equally important ability to be gentle.
Initially, her bedside manner is on the brusque side, but when she becomes a mother this changes. Treating a sick baby in the ITU, she realizes she barely sees her own child for more than five minutes per evening. In the final paragraphs, she quits her career-track consultant job to work part-time. “I chose a life with more home in it.” It’s an abrupt ending to a 180-page memoir that I thoroughly enjoyed but that left me wanting more. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Reading)
Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park by Marie Winn (1998)
In the early 1990s, Wall Street Journal columnist Winn fell in with an earnest group of birdwatchers who monitor the daily activity in New York City’s Central Park, a haven for wildlife. Through the Register, a logbook stored in a boathouse, they share sightings and track patterns. Relative rarities thrive and breed each year. Before long the book zeroes in on a famous pair of red-tailed hawks, “Pale Male” and a series of females. Winn emphasizes the “drama” of her subtitle, arranging the content into Acts and Scenes that span about five years.
Wild birds face many risks, most of them the fault of humans, and there are some distressing losses here. It is thus a triumph when Pale Male and his mate successfully raise three chicks on the façade of a Fifth Avenue apartment building (home to Mary Tyler Moore, with Woody Allen across the street). The birdwatchers are vigilant, sending letters to the apartment manager and calling park staff to ensure the birds are left in peace. No doubt it’s easier to disseminate information and assign responsibility now what with WhatsApp and Twitter. Indeed, I found the book a little dated and the anthropomorphizing somewhat over-the-top, but Winn makes a sweet, rollicking yarn out of people getting invested in nature. (Secondhand purchase from Clock Tower Books, Hay-on-Wye)
Coming up next: Three green, one black, one gold (and maybe a rainbow bonus).
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
The New York City publishing world was an irresistible draw of this historical novel, my first fiction read from Francine Prose. In June 1953, Simon Putnam, newly graduated from Harvard with a degree in folklore studies, is living at home with his parents on Coney Island when the Rosenberg execution appears on television. The whole country has been caught up in this sordid real-life spy drama, but his family has an unusual connection that makes them feel they have more of a stake: Simon’s mother grew up in the same tenement building as Ethel Rosenberg and they attended high school together. The Putnams feel the execution was a disgrace, and Simon’s mother has even created a sort of shrine to Ethel in their apartment.
This puts Simon in a tricky situation when his uncle gets him an editorial job with a publisher whose next project – intended to keep the struggling firm afloat – is the potboiler The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, a thinly veiled version of the Rosenberg story that relishes in their demise, turning them into “Soviet sex zombies.” Besides being in poor taste, it’s atrociously written. Can Simon turn it into something more in line with his values without displeasing his boss? Complicating matters is his crush on the book’s author, Anya Partridge, a vamp who wears a fox stole and happens to be confined to a mental asylum.
Nothing is what it seems in a suspenseful narrative inspired by the events of the Red Scare. Characters who initially embody stereotypes end up surpassing expectations. I have trouble putting my finger on why I found this novel underwhelming on the whole. Maybe it was something to do with the far-fetched turns and Simon’s impassive narration. Or one too many references to his sex fantasies about Anya. I don’t see myself seeking out more fiction by Prose. But if you’re a fan of Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell and especially The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott, you may well find this a pleasant summer diversion.
My thanks to Harper360 UK and Anne Cater for arranging my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Vixen. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
I had the “wrong” introduction to Julia Glass’s work in that I started with The Whole World Over (2006) in January 2019 instead of the novel to which it is a rough sequel: her National Book Award-winning debut, Three Junes. This wasn’t really a problem, though. The main link between the two is the character Fenno, a Scottish transplant to New York City who runs a bookstore. He narrates the central and longest section of Three Junes, while the shorter bookend chapters are in the third person. All three pieces braid past and present together such that the novel’s 10-year span feels even more expansive.
“Collies,” set in 1989, opens the book on Greece, where Paul McLeod has headed for a package holiday after the death from cancer of his wife, Maureen, who was an obsessive dog trainer. In “Upright,” which moves six years into the future, Paul’s son Fenno and his younger twin brothers, David and Dennis, are at the family home in Dumfries to divvy up the estate. Fenno’s mind drifts back through his time in New York City and particularly the lovers and friends of his life, some of whom died at the height of the AIDS crisis. In the present day, he faces a dilemma when his brother and sister-in-law ask him an intimate favor.
“Boys,” dated 1999, closes the book and centers on Fern, a young widow who is visiting a friend’s beach home in Long Island and contemplating how she will tell her new boyfriend (who happens to be her landlord’s son) that she is five months pregnant. This final chapter ropes in a few characters from previous sections – but, in a frustrating yet delicious instance of dramatic irony, the two main figures don’t realize there’s a couple of connections between them.
Many of the elements that I loved in The Whole World Over were present here, too: a New York City bookstore setting, the comfort of animals (David is a vet), gourmet meals (Dennis is a chef), and a matter-of-fact but tender consideration of loss. A minor character declares, “people overestimate the power of the past,” but this tripartite narrative puts the lie to that statement as the past continues to seep into everyday life. And the last line goes on my list of favourites encountered so far this year: “Here we are—despite the delays, the confusion, and the shadows en route—at last, or for the moment, where we always intended to be.”
I didn’t particularly warm to the first chapter and worried that this boded ill for the whole book, but as soon as Fenno’s voice took over at about page 60 I sank into the inviting prose. After my first taste of her work, I likened Glass to Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst; now I’d add in Elizabeths Berg and Strout. I’ll read the rest of her books for sure. I have a paperback copy of I See You Everywhere and her latest, A House among the Trees, is on my Kindle.
Source: Secondhand purchase from Wonder Book and Video outdoor clearance area
The first four books for this summer’s colour theme took me from Australia to New York City to Nigeria, and into a mind plagued by depression.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)
This was my last remaining unread book by Adichie, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I found it underwhelming. In comparison to her two later novels, and even her short stories (of which this reminded me the most), the canvas is small and the emotional scope limited. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager caught between belief systems: her grandfather’s traditional (“pagan”) ancestor worship versus the strict Catholicism that is the preserve of her abusive father, but also of the young priest on whom she has a crush. She and her brother try to stay out of their father’s way, but they are held to such an impossibly high standard of behaviour that it seems inevitable that they will disappoint him.
Adichie’s debt to her literary hero, Chinua Achebe, is evident from the first line onward: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” It also sets up, with a certain lack of subtlety, the way in which religion is wielded as a weapon in the novel. Meanwhile, the title suggests rarity, beauty, and fragile hope. Had this been my first taste of Adichie’s fiction, I probably would have stopped there, so in a way I’m glad that I read her first book last. Now I just have to wait with tapping fingers for the next one… (Free from a neighbour)
Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières (2016)
A sweet coming-of-age novella about a boy moving to the Australian Outback to live with his grandfather in the 1960s and adopting a stray dog – a red cloud kelpie, but named Blue. I didn’t realize that this is a prequel (to Red Dog), and based on a screenplay. It was my third book by de Bernières, and it was interesting to read in the afterword that he sees this one as being suited to 12-year-olds, yet most likely to be read by adults.
Mick’s father is dead and his mother has had a breakdown, so Granpa is the only one around to look after him, though out at the cattle station the boy mostly fends for himself, having adventures with stinging lizards and cyclones and bushfires and cursed caves. All along, Blue and his motorcycle are constant companions. Taylor Pete, a wry Aboriginal man, and Betty Marble, a pretty blonde hired as his teacher, are two amusing secondary characters.
This reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s writing about his childhood, and was pleasant airport and plane reading for me: light and fun, but not fluffy, and offering an armchair traveling opportunity. I especially liked the Australian lingo and the blue and black illustrations at the head and foot of each chapter, with a flipbook-style cartoon of a running dog in the upper right corner of each odd-numbered page. (Public library)
Emerald City by Jennifer Egan (1993)
Each of these 11 stories has a fantastic first line – my favorite, from “Sacred Heart,” being “In ninth grade I was a great admirer of Jesus Christ” – but often I felt that these stories of relationships on the brink did not live up to their openers. Most take place in a major city (Chicago, New York, San Francisco) or a holiday destination (Bora Bora, China, Mexico, Spain), but no matter the setting, the terrain is generally a teen girl flirting with danger or a marriage about to implode because the secret of a recent or long-ago affair has come out into the open.
Recurring elements include models/stylists/fashion photographers and people getting conned out of money. The title story is set in New York, described as “a place that glittered from a distance even when you reached it.”
To me the best story, for offering something a bit different, was “One Piece,” about a brother who seems to hurt everything he touches but comes through for his sister when it counts. Egan’s characters are caught between emotional states: remembering a golden age, regretting a moment that changed everything, or hoping that the best is yet to come. “The Stylist” was the one story that reminded me most of A Visit from the Goon Squad. As soon as I closed the book, I found that I had trouble remembering details of any of the stories. (Little Free Library in suburban Philadelphia, May 2019)
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990)
(Visible darkness must have a colour, right?) I had long wanted to read this and finally came across a secondhand copy the other day. What I never realized was that, at 84 pages, it is essentially an extended essay: It started life as a lecture given at Johns Hopkins in 1989, was expanded into a Vanity Fair essay, and then further expanded into this short book.
Approaching age 60 and on his way to Paris to accept a prestigious award, Styron could feel his depression worsening. Rather than being proud or grateful, he could only doubt his own talent. The pills his doctor prescribed him for insomnia exacerbated his feelings of despair. When he threw away the journal he had been keeping, he knew it was a potential prelude to suicide. Hearing a piece by Brahms on a movie soundtrack was the one thing that reminded him of the beauty of the world and the richness of his life, enough for him to reach out and get seven weeks of treatment at a mental hospital, which was what saved him. These experiences, recounted in sections VI and VII, are the highlight of the book.
Styron also muses on the creative temperament and the ubiquity of suicide among writers, especially those who, like him, had an early trauma (his mother died when he was 13). The prose is forthright and intimate, ably evoking a psychic pain that is “quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it.” This made me want to try his fiction, too. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
“each day’s pattern of distress exhibits fairly predictable alternating periods of intensity and relief. The evening’s relief for me—an incomplete but noticeable letup, like the change from a torrential downpour to a steady shower—came in the hours after dinnertime and before midnight, when the pain lifted a little and my mind would become lucid enough to focus on matters beyond the immediate upheaval convulsing my system.”
“Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”
Next two in progress: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy and Ruby by Ann Hood.
Read any of these? Interested?
The readalong that Cathy of 746 Books is hosting for Brian Moore’s centenary was just the excuse I needed to try his work for the first time. My library had a copy of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, his most famous work and the first to be published under his own name (after some pseudonymous potboilers), so that’s where I started.
Judith Hearne is a pious, set-in-her-ways spinster in Belfast. As the story opens, the piano teacher is moving into a new boarding house and putting up the two portraits that watch over her: a photo of her late aunt, whom Judith cared for in her sunset years; and the Sacred Heart. This establishment is run by a nosy landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice, and her adult son Bernard, who is writing his poetic magnum opus and carrying on with the maid. Recently joining the household is James Madden, the landlady’s brother, who is back from 30 years in New York City. Disappointed in his career and in his adult daughter, he’s here to start over.
Moore’s third-person narration slips easily between the viewpoints of multiple characters, creating a dramatic irony between their sense of themselves and what others think of them. Initially, we spend the most time in Judith’s head – an uncomfortable place to be because of how simultaneously insecure and hypercritical she is. She’s terrified of rejection, which she has come to expect, but at the same time she has nasty, snobbish thoughts about her fellow lodgers, especially overweight Bernard. The dynamic is reversed on her Sunday afternoons with the O’Neills, who, peering through the curtains as she arrives, groan at their onerous duty of entertaining a dull visitor who always says the same things and gets tipsy on sherry.
An unfortunate misunderstanding soon arises between Judith and James: in no time she’s imagining romantic scenarios, whereas he, wrongly suspecting she has money stashed away, hopes she can be lured into investing in his planned American-style diner in Dublin. “A pity she looks like that,” he thinks. Later we get a more detailed description of Judith from a bank cashier: “On the wrong side of forty with a face as plain as a plank, and all dressed up, if you please, in a red raincoat, a red hat with a couple of terrible-looking old wax flowers in it.”
Oh how the heart aches for this figure of pathos. James’s situation, what with the ultimate failure of his American dream, echoes hers in several ways. Something happens that lessens our sympathy for James, but Judith remains a symbol of isolation and collapse. The title also reflects the spiritual aspect of this breakdown: Judith feels that she’s walking a lonely road, like Jesus did on the way to the crucifixion, and the Catholic Church to which she’s devoted, far from being a support in time of despair, is only the source of more judgment.
Alcoholism, mental illness, and religious doubt swirl together to make for a truly grim picture of life on the margins. The novel also depicts casual racism and a scene of sexual assault. No bed of roses here. But Moore’s writing, unflinching yet compassionate, renders each voice and perspective distinct in an unforgettable character study full of intense scenes. I especially loved how the final scene returns full circle. I’d particularly recommend this to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor, and fans of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. I’ll definitely try more from Moore – I found a copy of The Colour of Blood in a Little Free Library in Somerset, so will add that to my stack for 20 Books of Summer.
The “P.S.” section of the Harper Perennial paperback I borrowed from the library contains a lot of interesting information on Moore’s life and the composition of Judith Hearne. After time as a civilian worker in the British army, Moore moved to Canada and became a journalist. Later he would move to Malibu and write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.
The protagonist was based on a woman Moore’s parents invited over for Sunday diners in Belfast. Like Judith, she loved wearing red and went on about the aunt who raised her. Moore said, “When I wrote Judith Hearne I was very lonely, writing in a rented caravan, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning almost no money as a reporter and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.” The novel was rejected by 12 publishing houses before the firm André Deutsch, namely reader Laurie Lee and co-director Diana Athill, recognized its genius and accepted it for publication.
I found a lesser-known Yates novel on my last trip to our local charity warehouse and saved it up for the titular holiday. I also remembered about a half-read theology book I’d packed away with the decorative wooden Easter egg and tin with a rabbit on in the holiday stash behind the spare room bed. And speaking of rabbits…
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (1976)
Yates sets out his stall with the first line: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” I’d seen the film of Revolutionary Road, and my impression of Yates’s work was confirmed by this first taste of his fiction: an atmosphere of mid-century (sub)urban ennui, with the twin ills of alcoholism and adultery causing the characters to drift inexorably towards tragedy.
The novel follows Sarah and Emily Grimes from the 1930s to the 1970s. Emily, four years younger, has always known that her sister is the pretty one. Twenty-year-old Sarah is tapped to model traditional Chinese dress during an Easter parade and be photographed by the public relations office of United China Relief, for whom she works in fundraising. Sarah had plans with her fiancé, Tony Wilson, and is unenthusiastic about taking part in the photo shoot, while Emily thinks what she wouldn’t give to appear in the New York Times.
The mild rivalry resurfaces in the years to come, though the sisters take different paths: Sarah marries Tony, has three sons, and moves to the Wilson family home out on Long Island; in New York City, Emily keeps up an unending stream of lovers and English-major jobs: bookstore clerk, librarian, journal editor, and ad agency copywriter. Sarah envies Emily’s ability to live as a free spirit, while Emily wishes she could have Sarah’s loving family home – until she learns that it’s not as idyllic as it appears.
What I found most tragic wasn’t the whiskey-soused poor decisions so much as the fact that both sisters have unrealized ambitions as writers. They long to follow in their headline-writing father’s footsteps: Emily starts composing a personal exposé on abortion, and later a witty travel guide to the Midwest when she accompanies a poet boyfriend to Iowa so he can teach in the Writers’ Workshop; Sarah makes a capable start on a book about the Wilson family history. But both allow their projects to wither, and their promise is unfulfilled.
Yates’s authentic characterization, forthright prose, and incisive observations on the futility of modern life and the ways we choose to numb ourselves kept this from getting too depressing – though I don’t mind bleak books. Much of the novel sticks close to Emily, who can, infuriatingly, be her own worst enemy. Yet the ending offers her the hand of grace in the form of her nephew Peter, a minister. I read the beautiful final paragraphs again and again.
A readalike I’ve reviewed (sisters, one named Sarah!): A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble
The Way of the Cross by Richard Holloway (1986)
Each year the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a short book for the Anglican Communion to use as Lenten reading. This study of the crucifixion focuses on seven of the Stations of the Cross, which are depicted in paintings or sculptures in most Anglo-Catholic churches, and emphasizes Jesus’s humble submission and the irony that the expected Son of God came as an executed criminal rather than an exalted king. Holloway weaves scripture passages and literary quotations through each chapter, and via discussion questions encourages readers to apply the themes of power, envy, sin, and the treatment of women to everyday life – not always entirely naturally, and the book does feel dated. Not a stand-out from a prolific author I’ve enjoyed in the past (e.g., Waiting for the Last Bus).
“the yearly remembrance of the life of Christ is a way of actualizing and making that life present now, in the universal mode of sacramental reality.”
“Powerlessness is the message of the cross”
Recently read for book club; I’ll throw it in here for its dubious thematic significance (the protagonist starts off as an innocently blasphemous child and, disappointed with God as she’s encountered him thus far, gives that name to her pet rabbit):
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (2011)
I’d enjoyed Winman’s 2017 Tin Man so was very disappointed with this one. You can tell it was a debut novel because she really threw the kitchen sink in when it comes to quirkiness and magic realism. Secondary characters manage to be more engaging than the primary ones though they are little more than a thumbnail description: the lesbian actress aunt, the camp old lodger, etc. I also hate the use of 9/11 as a plot device, something I have encountered several times in the last couple of years, and stupid names like Jenny Penny. Really, the second part of this novel just feels like a rehearsal for Tin Man in that it sets up a close relationship between two gay men and a woman.
Two major themes, generally speaking, are intuition and trauma: characters predict things that they couldn’t know by ordinary means, and have had some awful things happen to them. Some bottle it all up, only for it to explode later in life; others decide not to let childhood trauma define them. This is a worthy topic, certainly, but feels at odds with the carefully cultivated lighthearted tone. Winman repeatedly introduces something sweet or hopeful only to undercut it with a tragic turn of events.
The title phrase comes from a moment of pure nostalgia for childhood, and I think the novel may have been better if it had limited itself to that rather than trying to follow all the characters into later life and sprawling over nearly 40 years. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that I knew much about Elly, the narrator, or what makes her tick, and Joe and Jenny Penny almost detract from each other. Pick one or the other, brother or best friend, to be the protagonist’s mainstay; both was unnecessary.
Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.
The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)
The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.
The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.
Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)
Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.
For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”
I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)
My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.
Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.
Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.
The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.
First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)
Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.
The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.
Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
When I heard about the new book by Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of the New York Times, I rushed to put it on my wish list – though I ended up accessing it via the library instead. I also felt a hankering to reread Anne Fadiman’s essay collection by the same title, so I ordered myself a secondhand copy earlier this year. Both books are by (more or less) famous New York City bibliophiles and take old-fashioned bookplate designs as an inspiration. Here’s how the two fared in a head-to-head battle.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (1998)
Like many a bibliophile, I have a soft spot for books about books. However, I’m also a real stickler about them, because all too often they make common mistakes: they’re too generic or too obscure in their points of reference, they slip into plot summary and include spoilers, or they alienate the reader by presenting the author as being on another echelon.
Fadiman, though, is a very relatable narrator in these expanded versions of 18 essays originally written for publication in Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine published from 1994 to 2000. (Can you imagine, your own bookish column in which you could write whatever you like?!) Her father was the well-known intellectual Clifton Fadiman. Theirs was a family of book-obsessed, vocabulary-loving, trivia-spouting readers, and she was also crafting her own with her husband and two young children.
I saw my family – especially my mother and me – in a number of these pieces: in “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” about the love of obscure words and word games played on a board or along with the TV (I was a spelling bee champion, and we’re all Scrabble fiends to a greater or lesser extent), in “Insert a Caret [Inset a Carrot],” about compulsive proofreading, in “The Catalogical Imperative,” about a build-up of print catalogues and the different selves one can imagine using the products therein, and in “Secondhand Prose,” about collecting used books.
There’s one respect in which I differ from the Fadiman family, though. Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books had reminded me of Fadiman’s division of readers into “courtly” and “carnal” lovers of books: the courtly ones keep a book pristine, while the carnal ones use and abuse them however they wish. She introduces this piece with an episode from a family trip to Copenhagen when she was a teenager. Her brother left a book open, facedown, on the bedside table at their hotel and the next day they found that the chambermaid had carefully put a marker at the right page, closed the book, and set a note on top reading, “Sir, you must never do that to a book.” I wholeheartedly agree. While I always say “your books, your rules” to other readers, I would have to suppress a cringe if I witnessed dog-earing, reading in the bath, cracking the spine, tearing out pages, doodling in the margins, and so on.
What I can get on board with, though, is the love of books as both narratives and physical objects. In the former camp, you get essays on books about polar exploration, sonnets, outdated guides to femininity, food literature, and reading aloud. On the latter, you’ll hear about her New York City apartment groaning with books absorbed from her husband’s and father’s collections, the good and bad of inscriptions, and Prime Minister William Gladstone’s tips for storing books.
Two essays have not aged well: one on a beloved pen (though she acknowledges that this was already multiply outdated by that time, by the typewriter and then by the computer she now uses for composition) and especially one on the quandary of gender-neutral pronouns (as opposed to “every man for himself” types of constructions) – nowadays we have no qualms about employing “them” for the unknown and the nonbinary.
My favorite essay overall was “You Are There,” about the special joy of reading on location. Additional irony points for Joe Biden being mentioned in the piece on plagiarism! I’d read this from a library some years before. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around, and certain essays will reward additional future rereadings, too.
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani (2020)
In my more morbid moments, when I imagine how I would approach the remainder of my life if I knew that I was going to die young of a terminal illness, I think about self-publishing a selection of my best blog posts and book reviews. A personal greatest hits, if you would, and anyone could forgive the self-indulgence because, hey, she’s probably going to die soon. But then I open a book like this and realize that a collection of book reviews can actually be pretty tedious, even when written by one of the greats.
“Like all lists and anthologies, the selections here are subjective and decidedly arbitrary,” Kakutani warns in her introduction. What this means in practice is that: a) if I’d read a particular book, I didn’t need to read a ~1000-word review of it; b) if I hadn’t read the book but wanted to, I avoided the essay in fear of spoilers (e.g. she does reveal some specific incidents from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, which I have on the shelf and was looking forward to; I’ll just wait until I’ve forgotten); and c) if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t want to (there is LOTS of history and politics here, with plenty of Trump jabs shoehorned in; you do know her only previous book was a diatribe against Trump, right?), I wasn’t interested. So, while there were a few pieces I appreciated, such as one on the enduring appeal of The Great Gatsby, which I recently read a third time for book club, not many caught my eye as I skimmed the book.
In any case, it’s not a book for reading all the way through but one for having on the coffee table to read the occasional essay. It is gorgeously put together, what with Dana Tanamachi’s illustrations in the style of vintage bookplates, so would still be a lovely reference book to have around. Think of it as a collection of amuse-bouches to whet your appetite to read the books you’ve always meant to pick up but haven’t managed yet (for me, that would be As I Lay Dying and Mason & Dixon). See Susan’s more judicious review here.
I found plenty of other books on Goodreads with the title Ex Libris, such as this one, a compendium of library-themed fantasy and science fiction stories. (Yes, really.)