Rathbones Folio Prize Fiction Shortlist: Sheila Heti and Elizabeth Strout
I’ve enjoyed engaging with this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize shortlists, reading the entire poetry shortlist and two each from the nonfiction and fiction lists. These two I accessed from the library. Both Sheila Heti and Elizabeth Strout featured in the 5×15 event I attended on Tuesday evening, so in the reviews below I’ll weave in some insights from that.
Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
Sheila Heti is a divisive author; I’m sure there are those who detest her indulgent autofiction, though I’ve loved it (How Should a Person Be? and especially Motherhood). But this is another thing entirely: Heti puts two fingers up to the whole notion of rounded characterization or coherent plot. This is the thinnest of fables, fascinating for its ideas and certainly resonant for me what with the themes of losing a parent and searching for purpose in life on an earth that seems doomed to destruction … but is it a novel?
My summary for Bookmarks magazine gives an idea of the ridiculous plot:
Heti imagines that the life we live now—for Mira, studying at the American Academy of American Critics, working in a lamp store, grieving her father, and falling in love with Annie—is just God’s first draft. In this creation myth of sorts, everyone is born a “bear” (lover), “bird” (achiever), or “fish” (follower). Mira has a mystical experience in which she and her dead father meet as souls in a leaf, where they converse about the nature of time and how art helps us face the inevitability of death. If everything that exists will soon be wiped out, what matters?
The three-creature classification is cute enough, but a copout because it means Heti doesn’t have to spend time developing Mira (a bird), Annie (a fish), or Mira’s father (a bear), except through surreal philosophical dialogues that may or may not take place whilst she is disembodied in a leaf. It’s also uncomfortable how Heti uses sexual language for Mira’s communion with her dead dad: “she knew that the universe had ejaculated his spirit into her”.
Heti explained that the book came to her in discrete chunks, from what felt like a more intuitive place than the others, which were more of an intellectual struggle, and that she drew on her own experience of grief over her father’s death, though she had been writing it for a year beforehand.
Indeed, she appears to be tapping into primordial stories, the stuff of Greek myth or Jewish kabbalah. She writes sometimes of “God” and sometimes of “the gods”: the former regretting this first draft of things and planning how to make things better for himself the second time around; the latter out to strip humans of what they care about: “our parents, our ambitions, our friendships, our beauty—different things from different people. They strip some people more and others less. They strip us of whatever they need to in order to see us more clearly.” Appropriately, then, we follow Mira all the way through to her end, when, stripped of everything but love, she rediscovers the two major human connections of her life.
Given Ali Smith’s love of the experimental, it’s no surprise that she as a judge shortlisted this. If you’re of a philosophical bent, don’t mind negligible/non-existent plot in your novels and aren’t turned off by literary pretension, you should be fine. If you are new to Heti or unsure about trying her, though, this is probably not the right place to start. See my Goodreads review for some sample quotes, good and bad.
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
This was by far the best of the three Amgash books I’ve read. I think it must be the first time that Strout has set a book not in the past or at some undated near-contemporary moment but in the actual world with its current events, which inevitably means it gets political. I had my doubts about how successful she’d be with such hyper-realism, but this really worked.
As Covid hits, William whisks Lucy away from her New York City apartment to a house at the coast in Crosby, Maine. She’s an Everywoman recounting the fear and confusion of those early pandemic days, hearing of friends and relatives falling ill and knowing there’s nothing she can do about it. Isolation, mostly imposed on her but partially chosen – she finally gets a writing studio, the first ‘room of her own’ she’s ever had – gives her time to ponder the trauma of her childhood and what went wrong in her marriage to William. She worries for her two adult daughters but, for the first time, you get the sense that the strength and wisdom she’s earned through bitter experience will help her support them in making good choices.
Here in rural Maine, Lucy sees similar deprivation to what she grew up with in Illinois and also meets real people – nice, friendly people – who voted for Trump and refuse to be vaccinated. I loved how Strout shows us Lucy observing and then, through a short story, compassionately imagining herself into the situation of conservative cops and drug addicts. “Try to go outside your comfort level, because that’s where interesting things will happen on the page,” is her philosophy. This felt like real insight into a writer’s inspirations.
Another neat thing Strout does here, as she has done before, is to stitch her oeuvre together by including references to most of her other books. So she becomes friends with Bob Burgess, volunteers alongside Olive Kitteridge’s nursing home caregiver (and I expect their rental house is supposed to be the one Olive vacated), and meets the pastor’s daughter from Abide with Me. My only misgiving is that she recounts Bob Burgess’s whole story, replete with spoilers, such that I don’t feel I need to read The Burgess Boys.
Lucy has emotional intelligence (“You’re not stupid about the human heart,” Bob Burgess tells her) and real, hard-won insight into herself (“My childhood had been a lockdown”). Readers as well as writers have really taken this character to heart, admiring her seemingly effortless voice. Strout said she does not think of this as a ‘pandemic novel’ because she’s always most interested in character. She believes the most important thing is the sound of the sentences and that a writer has to determine the shape of the material from the inside. She was very keen to separate herself from Lucy, and in fact came across as rather terse. I had somehow expected her to have a higher voice, to be warmer and softer. (“Ah, you’re not Lucy, you’re Olive!” I thought to myself.)
This year’s judges are Guy Gunaratne, Jackie Kay and Ali Smith. Last year’s winner was a white man, so I’m going to say in 2023 the prize should go to a woman of colour, and in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if all three category winners were women of colour. My own taste in the shortlists is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very white-lady-ish and non-experimental. But I think Amy Bloom and Elizabeth Strout’s books are too straightforward and Fiona Benson’s not edgy enough. So I’m expecting:
Fiction: Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser
Nonfiction: Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
Poetry: Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley (or Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa)
Overall winner: Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (or Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley)
This is my 1,200th blog post!
#ReadIndies and Review Catch-up: Hazrat, Nettel, Peacock, Seldon
Another four selections for Read Indies month. I’m particularly pleased that two from this latest batch are “just because” books that I picked up off my shelves; another two are catch-up review copies. A few more indie titles will appear in my February roundup on Tuesday. For today, I have a fun variety: a history of the exclamation point, a Mexican novel about choosing motherhood versus being childfree, a memoir of a decades-long friendship between two poets, and a posthumous poetry collection with themes of history, illness and nature.
An Admirable Point: A brief history of the exclamation mark by Florence Hazrat (2022)
I’m definitely a punctuation geek. (My favourite punctuation mark is the semicolon, and there’s a book about it, too: Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, which I have on my Kindle.) One might think that strings of exclamation points are a pretty new thing – rounding off phrases in (ex-)presidential tweets, for instance – but, in fact, Hazrat opens with a Boston Gazette headline from 1788 that decried “CORRUPTION AND BRIBERY!!!” in relation to the adoption of the new Constitution.
The exclamation mark as we know it has been around since 1399, and by the 16th century its use for expression and emphasis had been codified. I was reminded of Gretchen McCulloch’s discussion of emoji in Because Internet, which also considers how written speech signifies tone, especially in the digital age. There have been various proposals for other “intonation points” over the centuries, but the question mark and exclamation mark are the two that have stuck. (Though I’m currently listening to an album called interrobang – ‽, that is. Invented by Martin Speckter in 1962; recorded by Switchfoot in 2021.)
I most enjoyed Chapter 3, on punctuation in literature. Jane Austen’s original manuscripts, replete with dashes, ampersands and exclamation points, were tidied up considerably before they made it into book form. She’s literature’s third most liberal user of exclamation marks, in terms of the number per 100,000 words, according to a chart Ben Blatt drew up in 2017, topped only by Tom Wolfe and James Joyce.
There are also sections on the use of exclamation points in propaganda and political campaigns – in conjunction with fonts, which brought to mind Simon Garfield’s Just My Type and the graphic novel ABC of Typography. It might seem to have a niche subject, but at just over 150 pages this is a cheery and diverting read for word nerds.
With thanks to Profile Books for the proof copy for review.
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
This was the Mexican author’s fourth novel; she’s also a magazine director and has published several short story collections. I’d liken it to a cross between Motherhood by Sheila Heti and (the second half of) No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Thirtysomething friends Laura and Alina veer off in different directions, yet end up finding themselves in similar ethical dilemmas. Laura, who narrates, is adamant that she doesn’t want children, and follows through with sterilization. However, when she becomes enmeshed in a situation with her neighbours – Doris, who’s been left by her abusive husband, and her troubled son Nicolás – she understands some of the emotional burden of motherhood. Even the pigeon nest she watches on her balcony presents a sort of morality play about parenthood.
Meanwhile, Alina and her partner Aurelio embark on infertility treatment. Laura fears losing her friend: “Alina was about to disappear and join the sect of mothers, those creatures with no life of their own who, zombie-like, with huge bags under their eyes, lugged prams around the streets of the city.” They eventually have a daughter, Inés, but learn before her birth that brain defects may cause her to die in infancy or be severely disabled. Right from the start, Alina is conflicted. Will she cling to Inés no matter her condition, or let her go? And with various unhealthy coping mechanisms to hand, will her relationship with Aurelio stay the course?
Laura alternates between her life and her friends’ circumstances, taking on an omniscient voice on Nettel’s behalf – she recounts details she couldn’t possibly be privy to, at least not at the time (there’s a similar strategy in The Group by Lara Feigel). The question of what is fated versus what is chosen, also represented by Laura’s interest in tarot and palm-reading, always appeals to me. This was a wry and sharp commentary on women’s options. (Giveaway win from Bookish Chat on Twitter)
Still Born was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the USA on August 8th.
A Friend Sails in on a Poem by Molly Peacock (2022)
I’ve read one of Peacock’s poetry collections, The Analyst, as well as her biography of Mary Delany, The Paper Garden. I was delighted when she got in touch to offer a review copy of her latest memoir, which reflects on her nearly half a century of friendship with fellow poet Phillis Levin. They met in a Johns Hopkins University writing seminar in 1976, and ever since have shared their work in progress over meals. They are seven years apart in age and their careers took different routes – Peacock headed up the Poetry Society of America’s subway poetry project and then moved to Toronto, while Levin taught at the University of Maryland – but over the years they developed “a sense of trust that really does feel familial … There is a weird way, in our conversations about poetry, that we share a single soul.” For a time they were both based in New York City and had the same therapist; more recently, they arranged annual summer poetry retreats in Cazenovia (recalled via diary entries), with just the two attendees. Jobs and lovers came and went, but their bond has endured.
The book traces their lives but also their development as poets, through examples of their verse. Her friend is “Phillis” in real life, but “Levin” when it’s her work is being discussed – and her own poems are as written by “Peacock.” Both women became devoted to the sonnet, an unusual choice because at the time that they were graduate students free verse reigned and form was something one had to learn on one’s own time. Stanza means “room,” Peacock reminds readers, and she believes there is something about form that opens up space, almost literally but certainly metaphorically, to re-examine experience. She repeatedly tracks how traumatic childhood events, as much as everyday observations, were transmuted into her poetry. Levin did so, too, but with an opposite approach: intellectual and universal where Peacock was carnal and personal. That paradox of difference yet likeness is the essence of the friendships we sail on. What a lovely read, especially if you’re curious about ‘where poems come from’; I’d particularly recommend it to fans of Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty.
With thanks to Molly Peacock and Palimpsest Press for the free e-copy for review.
The Bright White Tree by Joanna Seldon (Worple Press, 2017)
This appeared the year after Seldon died of cancer; were it not for her untimely end and her famous husband Anthony (a historian and political biographer), I’m not sure it would have been published, as the poetry is fairly mediocre, with some obvious rhymes and twee sentiments. I wouldn’t want to speak ill of the dead, though, so think of this more like a self-published work collected in tribute, and then no problem. Some of the poems were written from the Royal Marsden Hospital, with “Advice” a useful rundown of how to be there for a friend undergoing cancer treatment (text to let them know you’re thinking of them; check before calling, or visiting briefly; bring sanctioned snacks; don’t be afraid to ask after their health).
Seldon takes inspiration from history (the story of Kitty Pakenham, the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas), travels in England and abroad (“Robin in York” vs. “Tuscan Garden”), and family history. Her Jewish heritage is clear from poems about Israel, National Holocaust Memorial Day and Rosh Hashanah. Her own suffering is put into perspective in “A Cancer Patient Visits Auschwitz.” There are also ekphrastic responses to art and literature (a Gaugin, A Winter’s Tale, Jane Eyre, and so on). I particularly liked “Conker,” a reminder of a departed loved one “So is a good life packed full of doing / That may grow warm with others, even when / The many years have turned, and darkness filled / Places where memory shone bright and strong. / I feel the conker and feel he is here.” (New bargain book from Waterstones online sale with Christmas book token)
There are haikus dotted through the collection; here’s one perfect for the season:
Maids demure, white tips to
Mob caps… Look now! They’ve
Splattered the lawn with snow
Have you discovered any new-to-you independent publishers recently?
Book Serendipity, Mid-October to Mid-December 2022
The last entry in this series for the year. Those of you who join me for Love Your Library, note that I’ll host it on the 19th this month to avoid the holidays. Other than that, I don’t know how many more posts I’ll fit in before my year-end coverage (about six posts of best-of lists and statistics). Maybe I’ll manage a few more backlog reviews and a thematic roundup.
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Tom Swifties (a punning joke involving the way a quotation is attributed) in Savage Tales by Tara Bergin (“We get a lot of writers in here, said the rollercoaster operator lowering the bar”) and one of the stories in Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (“Would you like a soda? he asked spritely”).
- Prince’s androgynous symbol was on the cover of Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby and is mentioned in the opening pages of Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
- Clarence Thomas is mentioned in one story of Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and Encore by May Sarton. (A function of them both dating to the early 1990s!)
- A kerfuffle over a ring belonging to the dead in one story of Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman and Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
- Excellent historical fiction with a 2023 release date in which the amputation of a woman’s leg is a threat or a reality: one story of Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman and The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland.
- More of a real-life coincidence, this one: I was looking into Paradise, Piece by Piece by Molly Peacock, a memoir I already had on my TBR, because of an Instagram post I’d read about books that were influential on a childfree woman. Then, later the same day, my inbox showed that Molly Peacock herself had contacted me through my blog’s contact form, offering a review copy of her latest book!
- Reading nonfiction books titled The Heart of Things (by Richard Holloway) and The Small Heart of Things (by Julian Hoffman) at the same time.
- A woman investigates her husband’s past breakdown for clues to his current mental health in The Fear Index by Robert Harris and Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
- “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is a repeated phrase in Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, as it was in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
- Massive, much-anticipated novel by respected author who doesn’t publish very often, and that changed names along the way: John Irving’s The Last Chairlift (2022) was originally “Darkness as a Bride” (a better title!); Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water (2023) started off as “The Maramon Convention.” I plan to read the Verghese but have decided against the Irving.
- Looting and white flight in New York City in Feral City by Jeremiah Moss and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson.
- Two bereavement memoirs about a loved one’s death from pancreatic cancer: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
- The Owl and the Pussycat of Edward Lear’s poem turn up in an update poem by Margaret Atwood in her collection The Door and in Anna James’s fifth Pages & Co. book, The Treehouse Library.
- Two books in which the author draws security attention for close observation of living things on the ground: Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden and The Lichen Museum by A. Laurie Palmer.
- Seal and human motherhood are compared in Zig-Zag Boy by Tanya Frank and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer, two 2023 memoirs I’m enjoying a lot.
- Mystical lights appear in Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (the Northern Lights, there) and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer.
- St Vitus Dance is mentioned in Zig-Zag Boy by Tanya Frank and Robin by Helen F. Wilson.
- The history of white supremacy as a deliberate project in Oregon was a major element in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, which I read earlier in the year, and has now recurred in The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)
We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)
This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”
My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.
Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)
The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.
Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.
Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.
As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)
A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.
In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)
PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)
Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)
August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)
In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.
Being There by Jerzy Kosiński (#NovNov22 Short Classics Week)
I knew pretty much nothing about this when I went into it and that was for the best. Only after I’d finished reading it (in one sitting) did I remember that there’s a Peter Sellers film; I’m glad I wasn’t imagining him in my head the whole time.
If you keep in mind that this is a satire on certain American qualities – gullibility, the obsession with money and appearance – you can probably, like I did, excuse the thinness of the plot, the clichéd behaviour of the characters, and the sometimes dated feel (this is from 1970).
Chance is an utter innocent, an illiterate orphan; his whole history is a blank. Most of what he knows comes from television, which he watches devotedly. He lives in one half of a house; the Old Man in the other. Apart from one maid or another, he sees no one else and has never left the complex for any reason. Aside from TV, his only hobby is gardening. The house’s walled garden is his haven and his joy. When the Old Man dies, the lawyers can find no record of a hired gardener or other retainer so Chance, like Adam, is cast out of his Eden and into … suburban New York City. Where he’s promptly hit by a limo, then taken to recuperate at the home of the rich businessman’s wife who was riding in it, Elizabeth Eve (or EE) Rand.
With his gardening stories that everyone takes to be metaphorical, Chase soon wins over Wall Street and White House alike, and fields propositions from men and women just the same. He takes his cues for how to act in social situations from his extensive mental archive of TV programs. It all gets a bit silly, but the naïf at the heart of it is so sweet that I didn’t mind. He’s like Forrest Gump or any number of other simple characters who get drawn into current events (it seems like quite the Hollywood trope, in fact); just by going along with what people assume about him, he comes across as intelligent and wise. His name can’t be coincidental, with its connotations of risk, fate, or just seizing opportunities. Luckily, the satire doesn’t outstay its welcome. However, I felt that the book just stops, with no proper ending.
(Kosiński’s life story is its own stranger-than-fiction tale; the biographical essay in the back of my paperback is only about five pages long but there were many points where I wondered if it was a tongue-in-cheek appendix! The novella is autobiographical, it seems, in that the author was married to a rich American widow and moved in the kind of wealthy circles the Rands do.)
[105 pages] (Secondhand purchase)
Until the Future: “Tomorrow” Novels by Emma Straub & Gabrielle Zevin
These two 2022 novels I read from the library recently were such fun, but also had me fighting back tears – they’re lovely, bittersweet reads that think seriously about time and failure and loss (and prompted me to ask myself, “Was everything better in 1995–6?” The answer to which is an emphatic YES). If you’re a city-goer, you’ll appreciate the loving depictions of New York City and Los Angeles. They’re also perfect literary/ commercial crossovers that I can imagine recommending to just about any of my readers. Both:
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
Emma Straub is one of the most reliable authors I know for highly readable literary fiction (see also: Jami Attenberg, Maggie O’Farrell and Ann Patchett): while there’s always a lot going on in terms of family dysfunction and character dynamics, her plots are juicy and the prose slides right down (especially Modern Lovers, as well as The Vacationers). Here Alice Stern is a frustrated 40-year-old who feels stuck career- and relationship-wise, working in admissions in the same NYC private school she once attended and living with an okay boyfriend she secretly hopes won’t propose. She devotes much of her emotional energy to her seriously ill father, Leonard, who it seems may never be released from the hospital.
Leonard is the one-hit sci-fi author of a cult classic about time travel, and when an inebriated Alice falls asleep near her childhood home on the night of her 40th birthday, she has her own time-travel adventure, waking up on her 16th birthday in 1996. This is her chance, she thinks: to make sure things go right with her high school crush, and to encourage her father to write more and adopt healthier habits so he won’t be dying in a hospital 24 years down the line. As she figures out the rules of this personal portal and attempts the same transition again and again, she starts to get the hang of what works; what she can change and what is inexorable. And she tries to be a better person, both then and now.
True sci-fi aficionados would probably pick holes in the reasoning, but I would say so long as you pick this up expecting a smart commentary on relationships, ageing, loss and regret rather than a straight-up time-travel novel, you’ll be just fine. Straub is closer to my older sister’s age than mine, but I still loved the 1990s nostalgia, and looking back at your childhood/teen years from a parent’s perspective can only ever be an instructive thing to do.
It’s clever how Straub starts cycling through the time changes faster and faster so they don’t get repetitive. The supporting characters like Sam (Alice’s African American best friend), Kenji and even Ursula the cat are great, and there are little nods throughout to other pop culture representations of time travel. This was entertaining and relatable, but also left me with a lump in the throat. And it was all the more poignant to have been reading it just as news hit of author Peter Straub’s death; it’s a daughter’s tribute.
Some favourite lines:
(Alice thinking about Leonard) “She would feel immeasurably older when he was gone.”
“Maybe, she thought, … her mistake had been assuming that somewhere along the line, everything would fall into place and her life would look just like everyone else’s.”
(in 1996) “Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early”
“Any story could be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on where you ended it. That was the magic, how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.”
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
I didn’t think I’d ever read another novel by Zevin after the dud that was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (by far my most popular negative review on Goodreads), but Laura’s fantastic review changed my mind.
Here’s the summary I wrote for Bookmarks magazine:
Sadie Green and Sam Masur met in unlikely circumstances. In 1986, Sam’s serious foot injury had him in a children’s hospital, where Sadie was visiting her sister, who had cancer. They hit it off talking video games, but Sam was hurt to learn Sadie kept up the visits to earn community service hours for her bat mitzvah. When they meet again during college in Boston, they decide to co-design a game. Helped by his roommate and her boyfriend, they create a bestseller, Ichigo, based on The Tempest. Over the decades, these gaming friends collaborate multiple times, but life throws some curveballs. A heartwarming story for gamers and the uninitiated alike.
The novel was more complicated than I expected, mostly because it spans nearly 30 years – and my main critique would probably be that a shorter timeline would have been more intense. It also goes to some dark places as it probes the two central characters’ traumas and tendency to depression. But their friendship, which over the years becomes a business partnership that also incorporates Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, is a joy. The creative energy and banter are enviable. Marx is the uncomplicated, optimistic go-between when Sam and Sadie butt heads and take offense at perceived betrayals. Underneath Sam and Sadie’s conflicts is a love different from, and maybe superior to, romantic love (I think Sam might best be described as ace).
Gaming comes across as better than reality in that it offers infinite possibilities for do-overs. Life, on the other hand, only goes in one direction and is constrained by choices, your own and others’. Part VII, “The NPC” (for non-player character), is in second person narration and is beautiful as well as heartbreaking – I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.
Apart from playing Super Mario with older cousins at 1990s family reunions and a couple of educational computer games with my childhood best friend, I don’t have any history with gaming at all, yet Zevin really drew me in to the fictional worlds Sadie and Sam created with their games. What with the vivid imagery and literary allusions, EmilyBlaster, Ichigo and Master of the Revels are real works of art, bridging high and low culture and proving that Dickinson’s poetry and Shakespeare’s plays are truly timeless. I was also interested to see how games might be ahead of their time socio-politically.
This reminded me most of The Animators and The Art of Fielding, similarly immersive stories of friendship and obsessive commitment to work and/or play. In the same way that you don’t have to know anything about cartooning or baseball to enjoy those novels, you don’t have to be a gamer to find this a nostalgic, even cathartic, read.
Some favourite lines:
“for Marx, the world was like a breakfast at a five-star hotel in an Asian country—the abundance of it was almost overwhelming. Who wouldn’t want a pineapple smoothie, a roast pork bun, an omelet, pickled vegetables, sushi, and a green-tea-flavoured croissant? They were all there for the taking and delicious, in their own way.”
Sam to Sadie: “We work through our pain. That’s what we do. We put the pain into the work, and the work becomes better.”
Marx (who was a college actor) in the early years, citing Macbeth: “What is a game? It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”
Short Stories in September, Part II: Andreades, Ferris, Fliss and Mulvey
It’s my aim to read as many short story collections as possible in September. After a first three earlier in the month, here are my next four.
Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades (2022)
It was Susan’s review that first enticed me to read this linked story collection. I’m always intrigued by the use of the first-person plural, though it can have downsides – in trying to be inclusive of the breadth of experiences of the “us,” the content can edge toward generic. I worried things were going that way in the early chapters about girlhood “in the dregs of Queens, New York,” but the more I read the more I admired Andreades’s debut. Each chapter is a fantastic thematic fragment adding up to a glistening mosaic of what it means to be a woman of colour in the USA. Desires and ambitions shift as they move from childhood to adolescence to college years to young adulthood, but some things stay the same: their parents’ high expectations, the pull of various cultures, and near-daily microaggressions.
Our families’ legacies, the histories we’ve inherited: grandparents who never learned to read, U.S.-backed dictatorships, bombs, wars, refugee camps, naval bases, canals, gold, diamonds, oil, missionaries, brain drain, the American Dream.
No matter their zip code or tax bracket, listen as these white people deem us and our families the good immigrants, the hard-working ones—not like the lazy people in this country who are a burden on the system.
The fulcrum is the sudden death of one of their number, Trish, which has repercussions through the second half of the book. It raises questions of mental health and whether friendships will last even when they move beyond Queens.
I especially loved Part Five, about a trip back to the motherland that leaves the brown girls disoriented from simultaneous sensations of connection, privilege and foreignness. “The colonized, the colonizer. Where do we fall?” My individual favourite chapters were “Duty,” about giving up on parentally prescribed medical studies to pursue a passion for art; “Patriotic,” about deciding whether or not to have children; and “Our Not-Reflections,” about age allowing them to understand what their mothers went through when they were new to the country. One critique: I would have omitted the final Part Eight, which is about Covid and death in general; the book didn’t need an update to feel timely. It’s a shame this wasn’t at least longlisted for the Women’s Prize this past year. (New purchase with a book token)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris (2017)
I’ve read a couple of Ferris’s novels but this collection had passed me by. “More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)” is set in the same office building as Then We Came to the End. Most of the entries take place in New York City or Chicago, with “Life in the Heart of the Dead” standing out for its Prague setting. The title story, which opens the book, sets the tone: bristly, gloomy, urbane, a little bit absurd. A couple are expecting their friends to arrive for dinner any moment, but the evening wears away and they never turn up. The husband decides to go over there and give them a piece of his mind, only to find that they’re hosting their own party. The betrayal only draws attention to the underlying unrest in the original couple’s marriage. “Why do I have this life?” the wife asks towards the close.
Marital discontent and/or infidelity is a recurring feature, showing up in “A Night Out” and “The Breeze,” which presents the different ways a couple’s evening might have gone. I liked this line about the difficulty of overcoming incompatibilities: “Why could she not be more like him and why could he not be more like her?” It seems from my short story reading that there is always one story I would give a different title. Here I would rename “The Valetudinarian” (about a Florida retiree who ends up in a comical health crisis) “They don’t give you a manual” after his repeated catchphrase.
A few of the 11 stories weren’t so memorable, but the collection ends with a bang. “A Fair Price” appears to have a typically feeble male protagonist, frustrated that the man he’s hired to help move his belongings out of a storage unit is so taciturn, but the innocuous setup hides a horrific potential. (Public library)
The Predatory Animal Ball by Jennifer Fliss (2021)
These 40 flash fiction stories try on a dizzying array of genres and situations. They vary in length from a paragraph (e.g., “Pigeons”) to 5–8 pages, and range from historical to dystopian. A couple of stories are in the second person (“Dandelions” was a standout) and a few in the first-person plural. Some have unusual POV characters. “A Greater Folly Is Hard to Imagine,” whose name comes from a William Morris letter, seems like a riff on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but with the very wall décor to blame. “Degrees” and “The Thick Green Ribbon” are terrifying/amazing for how quickly things go from fine to apocalyptically bad.
Grief and especially pregnancy loss are repeated elements. In “Yolk,” a woman finds a chicken embryo inside a cracked egg and it brings back memories of her recent stillbirth. In “All Your Household Needs,” a bereaved voice-over artist sympathizes with a child who picks up a stuffed Lucky the Dog whose speech she recorded. In “What Goes with Us,” an unreturned library book is a treasured reminder of a dead partner; “May His Memory Be a Blessing” lists many other such mementoes. Even the title story, whose main character is a mouse, opens with the loss of a loved one and posits compassion from an unexpected source.
It’s hard to get a sense of an author’s overall style from such disparate material, so I was pleased to learn that Fliss is working on her first novel, which I’ll be keen to read.
With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler for the e-copy for review.
Hearts & Bones: Love Songs for Late Youth by Niamh Mulvey (2022)
Having read these 10 stories over the course of a few months, I now struggle to remember what many of them were about. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s (young) women’s relationships. “My First Marina,” about a teenager discovering her sexual power and the potential danger of peer pressure in a friendship, is similar to the title story of Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz. In “Mother’s Day,” a woman hopes that a pregnancy will prompt a reconciliation between her and her estranged mother. In “Childcare,” a girl and her grandmother join forces against the mum/daughter, a would-be actress. “Currency” is in the second person, with the rest fairly equally split between first and third person. “The Doll” is an odd one about a ventriloquist’s dummy and repeats events from three perspectives.
I had two favourites: “Feathers” and “Good for You, Cecilia.” In the former, a woman rethinks her relationship with her boyfriend when the 2010 volcanic eruption restricts her to his French flat and she gets chatting with his cleaner. In the latter, a mother and daughter go to watch their daughter/sister’s dance recital in Dublin and witness the fall of a statue of St. Cecilia in a church they stop into. These are all matter-of-fact, somewhat detached stories set in European cities over the last decade or so. None of the protagonists had me particularly emotionally engaged with their plights. Overall, this felt reminiscent of Wendy Erskine’s work (I’ve reviewed Dance Move), but not as original or powerful.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Currently reading: Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, Playing Sardines by Michèle Roberts
Up next: The High Places by Fiona McFarlane, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
The #1954Club: Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
A quick follow-up to Friday’s post with one more read from 1954, plus a skim. The one is a series of comic portraits set on a women’s college campus, and the other is the story of a preacher’s son in 1930s Harlem. (Both: University library; )
Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
I have a real soft spot for novels set on college campuses. Any time I’ve looked through lists of options, Jarrell’s has been there. Still, it took the 1954 Club for me to finally pick up a copy. For about the first half, I was fully engaged with this academic comedy even though it doesn’t have a plot as such. The stage is Benton women’s college; the cast includes various eccentric professors and other staff, from President Robbins on down. Gertrude Johnson, a visiting writer, is writing a novel about Benton. The problem for her – and for us as readers – is two-fold: the characters are almost too eccentric to be believed, and nothing happens here.
The narrator, a poetry professor at Benton, knew Gertrude socially back in New York City. His descriptions of his fellow faculty are often hilarious. For instance, here’s his picture of Flo Whittaker:
Mostly she wore, in the daytime in the winter, a tweed skirt, a sweater-set, and a necklace. The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before
The Whittakers’ house is so full of kitschy knick-knacks that “Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed body would not have been ill at ease.” And then there’s the Robbinses’ ill-behaved pair of Afghan hounds, and Dr. Rosenbaum the music professor, whose German accent is rendered over-the-top.
Funny as parts of the novel can be, the humour can feel dated and sometimes relies on niche cultural references. The very first line, for example: “Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe”. However, elsewhere Jarrell mocks the pretentiousness of modern art and of the Benton set, who also seem woke avant la lettre:
Most of the people of Benton would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art; they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren’t prejudiced towards moon men; and they were so liberal and selfless, politically
Amusing pen portraits and witty lines made this pleasant to spend time with, but not a read that will stick with me.
As usual for any reading challenge, I bit off more than I could chew and started a fourth book but couldn’t get through it in time and, in all honesty, wasn’t finding it compelling. I’ll have to give it a better try on another occasion.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I’ve enjoyed Baldwin’s work before (The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room), but didn’t make it much past page 30 of this novel about John Grimes, a preacher’s son in Harlem, before starting to skim. The central section contains long flashbacks to the backstory of three secondary characters, whereas I was more interested in John’s story (semi-autobiographical for Baldwin, apparently). Mostly I thought of how the content and narrative style must have influenced the following generations of African American writers, including Toni Morrison and Catherine Adel West – both of whom I was reading at the same time.